Robert Fontenot’s sculptures, made out of bread dough, present the viewer with extremely humorous, yet severely violent worlds. He’s the author and designer of three books. Two of which are about the histories of ancient mythologies and the other of which is an illustrated history of performance art – that is, in my opinion, far more entertaining than Roselee Goldberg’s classic Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present. However, skillfully sculpting the human form’s most revealing gestures is not Robert Fontenot’s only mastered practice. He also has an ongoing series, where he embroiders textiles, as well as another project entitled Recycle LACMA – in which he buys deaccessioned items from the museum at auction and then turns them into items of use. For example, he transformed a Brocade evening dress into a fully functional fanny pack. If you have your wits about you, then it won’t take long to recognize the awesomeness of Robert Fontenot’s work.
How archival are bread dough sculptures?
I’m not exactly sure, but I have anecdotal evidence from friends who made bread dough Christmas ornaments when they were kids and held onto them for 20 years before they suddenly burst into mold. At the moment I‘m not really doing anything to preserve my sculptures. The photographs do that for me.
How do you attach your bread dough sculptures to a wall?
I’ll bake hooks into them if they’re meant for an installation.
Who photographs all of your sculptures?
I actually photograph all of my sculptures with a digital camera and then edit them in Photoshop.
How long did your book on performance art take you to complete?
It took me about 3 or 4 months, but that included making the sculptures as well as doing the research. Luckily, the Getty Research Institute has an amazing library, so I would go up there about twice a week to look through their archives. And, on a good day, I could bake up to 14 different scenes – although, the sculptures do take a lot of time in the oven.
It can take 3 hours or even longer depending on the thickness of the piece. Plus, you have to bake them at a really low temperature. It’s about drying them out as much as it is baking them.
Do you have a special recipe you use to make the dough?
It’s 4 parts flour to 1 part salt. I got the recipe from a book named Too Good To Eat, which was the catalyst for me making bread dough sculptures to begin with. Before that, I had been doing a lot of embroidery work.
Did you get your degree in mythology or art?
I got my bachelors of fine art degree from RISD, but I’ve always liked mythology, especially since it gives a context to so much of art history.
Is there a particular form of mythology you find most intriguing?
Mesopotamian mythology is particularly unnerving to me because it’s really confusing and there aren’t a lot of books written about it. Also, the narrative structures of their stories are completely foreign to my sensibilities. For example, there’s one myth about a goddess who goes through the gates of hell and as she passes through each one she has to take off a layer of her clothing. She Goes through a gate. She takes off a layer. She goes through a gate, she takes off a layer. Finally she gets to hell, completely naked, and gives a speech – after which she turns around and goes back to Earth and that’s the end. It’s kind of anti-climactic. Also, a lot of the earlier research of Mesopotamian mythology was really manipulated by biblical scholars because they were looking for facts to reaffirm the bible. So some of the crazier aspects of the stories were dialed down until recent historians looked into them.
That’s really bizarre…
It’s nothing new though. It happened to Greek mythology too, where clerical scholars that didn’t want anyone to have to deal with a completely alien value system, dialed down the homoeroticism of the original stories. Also, with Mesopotamian mythology, much of what you can research just comes from random writings archeologists find. I liken it to trying to piece together a culture based on the five books you pick out blindly from the library. I mean, imagine you were born after the apocalypse and you’re trying to piece together what the Louvre looked like based on a Danielle Steele novel and Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss.
Why do most of your characters appear nude?
It turns out that sculpting clothing is actually really hard to do with bread. Also, when the characters are naked, they’re almost more pure in a way, since clothing already has so much character associated to it.
What’s the story behind your massive piece The Studio Assistant Massacre?
After a great artist dies his assistants are killed and buried with him in order to help him create artwork in the afterlife. The massacre happens to take place on take-your-daughter-to-work-day, so some of the assassins have brought their kids to help.
Does Captains of Industry have a similar narrative to it?
Sort of, except it’s more loosely defined. It a tale of these playful little people who are confronted with giants. At first, the giants are kind of fun, but then they turn creepy and sexual and start killing and eating the little people. However, they start fighting back with toothpick spears and do a pretty good job actually. And eventually, the little people prevail and carry out their dead from the battleground, while eagles watch overhead.
Are you still doing your embroidery work?
Periodically. I call the whole series The Dictionary of Earthly Delight because every piece features a word with a negative connotation. I’ve made about 122 pieces so far and each one plays on a different stitching technique.
Are there endless amounts of techniques?
To some extent, and it’s fascinating to study because embroidery appears in almost every culture’s history. The Native Americans were doing things with porcupine quills to embellish cloth. The Inuit were using fish gut. There’s a huge and massive history.
What does meurtrissure mean?
It’s French for a particular type of violent bruise.