The walls of artist Numa Roda-Gil's studio in Paris are covered with thousands of tiny mannequins, dolls, cartoons, badges, and toys. In the middle, in pride of place, is a glass box containing some of the most familiar faces in the world. There are models of Tony the Tiger, the Pillsbury dough boy, a faded Colonel, and of course, several Ronald McDonalds and Hamburglars. The artwork is one of Roda Gil’s own, titled “Supermarket Safari,” and centres on the mascots of well known food brands.
“They're all cool characters, but they're selling poison,” he explains. “That's the paradox.”
Roda-Gil began his creative career as a music photographer in the Paris punk scene when he was just 14, taking pictures of bands like The Cramps.
“In France, we are a cooking country, but we feel that people don't cook anymore because of fast food and that's the problem,” he says. “People now spend more time on their mobile phones than cooking.”
This is why Roda-Gil is currently championing a French food obsession: olive oil. And he's doing more than just drizzling it over lettuce leaves—he wants to elevate olive oil to a work of art by painting with it.
We're currently at the start of a new season of extra virgin olive oil, during which time the fruits of last year's harvest are pressed. A five-day festival to mark this took place in Paris recently, featuring an international olive oil tasting crawl, lectures on the fruit, and oil sommeliers (yep, that's a thing) discussing the delights of extra virgin olive oil—or “EVOO” as fanatics of the stuff call it. People came from all over the world to sample the debut drops from the highly coveted first pressings.
These attendees might swill-and-spit EVOO as if they were testing a fine wine in Beaujolais season, but Roda-Gil used it to create a series of artworks, entitled “Human Beings.” It consists of 17 portraits of Native Americans and is painted with a mix of olive oil and watercolour paint.
In the same way that an American might see the burger as part of their national identity, Roda-Gil believes olive oil is an integral part of what it means to be Mediterranean.
“Olive oil is in our life from the beginning and it always will be—it's a constant," he says. "Some people need wine, we need olive oil. That's the reason I did this—we're olive oil guys.”
Despite being a prolific painter for the past 15 years, it wasn't long before Roda-Gil hit a major snag: oil doesn't mix with water. He found a way round this by taking the colour and mixing it with oil to make a paste, then watering it down. He experimented with quantities and percentages for 17 different types of oil—a different oil for every picture—and found that each had a slightly different texture; some were more liquid, others were more concentrated. Adding more oil meant that he couldn't paint in such intricate detail as it became blurry. Not enough made the paint too similar to regular watercolour.
And because the liquid is so precious, Roda-Gil began his experiments into the culinary arts with bog-standard, chip-pan-worthy oil from the supermarket.
“But it was very different from the extra virgin olive oils,” he says. “It has a different texture and a different smell.”
The first pressings of EVOO have a particularly pungent smell. I pick up a nearby bottle of the super-green liquid and take a sniff. It's grassy, herby, and heady.
“It's really pungent, isn't it?” Roda-Gil says. “But I really enjoyed working with it because of that. Although it made me really hungry, so I would paint and eat the oil at the same time.”
I try a little sip of the oil. It's spicy, slightly bitter, and almost peppery—nothing like the big brand oils I've been splashing around in my own kitchen for years.
Roda-Gil says that out of all the global examples of oil he used for painting, he likes the homegrown stuff best: “The first pressing of the oil can be quite aggressive and strong in taste, but I prefer French oil. But now we've been trying the oils from all over the world, it's in our blood. It's almost like a drug to us, like rock 'n' roll, we're hooked!”
When he began thinking about his collection of olive oil paintings, he tells me he didn't want to go down the route of doing something that was cliché.
“I didn't want to paint tomatoes and mozzarella, or pizza. That's too obvious. It had to be the right subject, and to me that was Native Americans—it's something I wanted to do for a long time, they're cool, strong people.”
The pictures all have an almost historical colour wash—like when you painted documents with watered-down coffee at school to make them look ancient—which Roda-Gil puts down to the addition of the greenish oil.
He explains: “The interesting thing was that the colours reacted differently to the oil and changed the colours slightly. The white reacted the same with all the oils, but when you take the reds, the pigments reacted differently, it almost spits out the oil. Some colours don't accept oil at all, like all the light colours; yellow, orange. All the greys and blues accepted it. I don't know exactly why, but that's why I decided to make a series with all the autumnal colours, as it also matched with the time of year of the olive harvest season, autumn.”
“I always like to put a bit of gold in each painting, but look here,” he points at a jewel in the centre of one of the portraits, “it doesn't like the oil at all, it's tarnished and looks very plain. But the oil also helped to make the colours and textures look natural, and almost of that era.”
“Essentially, doing these painting was a bit of a battle, which ties in with the Native American theme—they were warriors.”
Did he consider painting it on rice paper and using non-toxic colours to make the painting edible at any point?
“I thought about it, but all my work is on craft paper because I like that the water stretched and shrinks it and when the light goes on the picture it changes the shading and it will change throughout the day. I like the shape and the texture of adding the oil to the paint. It's not clean—and this is classic punk imagery, like the Xerox culture, which is where I started out in. My first works were fanzines, in the days before computers where you did everything with scissors, and this is how I still work.”
And what about the visiting oil producers? Were they annoyed that Roda-Gil was painting with their valuable produce, rather than eating it?
“No, everyone's been really happy with it. No one thought I was wasting it, they were pleased and surprised.”
He adds: “It's about getting people connecting with food again, which it what I like to do with my art.”
Well, if Andy Warhol can make a tin of Campbell's soup iconographic, then there's no reason why this golden nectar shouldn't have its place in art history, too.