BY CAROLINE SCHMIDT Photographer Dominic Episcopo’s latest show, “Meat America,” opens tonight at Bambi Gallery. Episcopo—who leads a double life as a well-respected commercial photographer—has taken pounds upon pounds of raw meat, and carved it into a bracing series of photographs depicting the carnivorous cultural landscape of America. Out of rib eye steaks, pork chops, lamb and gator—even caribou—he has butchered and sculpted the shapes of all 50 states, along with cultural icons and historical figures: from Benjamin Franklin to Bob Dylan, from Betsy Ross to Elvis. Out of ground beef he has made a series of photographed still lifes that both celebrate and question the tradition of animal flesh-eating, juxtaposing text-speak acronyms with objects of mundane and everyday sustenance. The photographs are rich with puns and a few political jabs—Alaska is positioned in close proximity to a bottle of Russian Stoli vodka—but the series maintains an element of light-hearted playfulness. Phawker took a trip to the photographer’s studio in Fishtown to preview the show.
PHAWKER: What inspired you to choose meat as your medium?
DOMINIC EPISCOPO: I was just joking with someone this morning—that at the interview [your] first question is going to be why meat—and, I don’t know why meat! Well, I know what first inspired me. I love meat: to eat, not to play with. It is symbolic of so many things—everything from over-consumption and mass-production, and life and flesh—it’s so rich with all of these things. Then geography came in, because, that’s where this really started: with maps. I’m a news hound, I watch news constantly. I used to watch CNN all of the time—I watch MSNBC now—but I would watch Wolf Blitzer everyday, and he still speaks in front of this world map that’s made out of this weird, red gelatin. And I always thought it looked like a meat map […] I decided to go out and buy a rib eye and try to do the United States, and that’s where it started. My stoned inspiration really just came from Wolf Blitzer. He still is on there today. If you see it—it makes no sense at all—it’s like this weird red gelatin of the world; it’s red on red and it just looks like this bloody version of the world behind him.
PHAWKER: Would you say the work is political?
DOMINIC: It is, definitely. It can’t help but be; just by using animal flesh it is automatically political. Oddly enough, I probably am on the opposite side of what you might think from looking at the work. It seems like a celebration of meat—and I do love meat, and we are meat eaters—but at the same time, I eat only organic meat, I think the way that meat is produced in this country is disgusting. It’s a problem for the environment; it’s a health problem. And really, this stuff is about that for me. I don’t eat meat five days a week; I’m lucky if I eat red meat once every two weeks. We do eat everything that I work with. Part of that is about not being wasteful, and for the environment, but I do think it’s just a part of the whole process.
PHAWKER: So you wind up eating your artwork?
DOMINIC: Yeah, I do. I’ll be playing with it all day, and then make dinner. My wife will be like “what are we eating?” And I will be like, “Lincoln, and New Jersey.” Very often we freeze it […] that’s why it becomes a mystery. When our baby was christened we had a party for him. We had been saving all of the ground meat from the ground meat pieces, and we made meatballs for his christening party and fed everybody the meat that we had shot.
PHAWKER: Do you spend hours looking for the right cut of meat?
DOMINIC: They think I am crazy at the butcher and at first they didn’t even want to deal with me, but then I showed them a picture of a finished one in my iPhone and all of a sudden they are like running to the back to get other steaks to show me.
PHAWKER: A lot of your photographs reminded me of Dutch still lifes. Can you talk a bit about some of the aesthetic influences in your work?
DOMINIC: I probably look more at paintings than I look at photography, and when you said Dutch still lifes — that’s exactly it. I am very drawn to that kind of stuff. As far as photography, my two favorite photographers are both Weegee and Irving Penn. I think my work is more like Irving Penn’s: very studied, kind of blunt no-tricks-about-it. But I think my work has that tongue in cheek that Weegee’s work had. He brought a sense of humor to photography. Those two photographers are my biggest influence, but I do tend to look way more at painting. Sometimes when I am trying to figure out just how to approach things, I find myself looking at paintings for composition. My lighting is just one light, which is what the Dutch masters tended to use. I don’t even always use a fill card. There are no real tricks; I am very straightforward in how I approach things. […] I am very influenced by blogs right now. A lot of the art that I find on blogs—and I use the term ‘art’ loosely—I enjoy because it is reinterpretation of very mundane things in our lives, that we know and see daily.
Opening reception for Meat America is tonight (Friday, January 7th) from 6-10 pm at Bambi Gallery in the Piazza in Northern Liberties; the show will be up until January 30th. Fine art prints will be for sale, as well as posters.