Colonel of Truth?

What began as simply another Arizona Gallery of Art exhibition on the history of fried chicken has recently sparked an unprecedented uproar on a national scale. Yet, of the numerous works on display in "Old Crispy: The American Chicken, Fried and Otherwise," one piece in particular has fomented the fracas.

At the heart of the controversy is little-known artist Cruz Nardini's "An American Chicken in Every Pot"--a piece involving a Kentucky Fried Chicken flag, emblazoned with the head of Colonel Harland Sanders, the chain's venerated founder, draped from a toilet bowl.

"What we are trying to do with fried chicken [in this show] is to confront the ambiguities, confront the fears, confront the images--past and present, pro and con--confront the feelings that we as a nation possess for this enigmatic poultry dish," offers museum curator F. Edward Felsen. "Too much negative emphasis has been placed on Nardini's work. Taken as a whole, I believe that the show quite accurately defines the true essence of chicken, particularly when fried, far beyond the admittedly powerful Sanders influence.

"I don't deny the naysayers their right to speak out against the exhibit, but they must understand that this is not about hate or dishonor toward the Colonel as a man or a symbol. This is about coming to terms."

Since the opening of the "OCACFO" show three weeks ago, protesters have been a frequent sight on the sidewalks in front of the Phoenix gallery. The bobbing signs and banners shouldered by these disgruntled citizens reveal their vehement, pro-hen, "ingestational" sentiments:

THE SKY IS FALLING.
ART DOES NOT COME BY THE BUCKET.
IF IT'S SERVED WITH A CLAW--
DON'T SAY NAW.
GET THE COLONEL OUT OF THE CAN.
But just who are these people?

"I got my start in the business, at a Kentucky Fried Chicken, 16 years ago," says chickeneer turned activist Sheryl Chapon, "and now I'm involved with three franchises. It's been a good living, and I've been able to raise three children from my income. And what would they think of the Colonel--of fried chicken--if I were to bring them here?"

Chapon says she has been involved with the protests from the beginning.
"I'm sorry, but having the Colonel's flag coming out of a toilet is not art," she clarifies. "And it's not like I don't like art. I do. I appreciate all forms of expression. I mean, I've seen Mapplethorpe stuff that comes off like the Iwo Jima Memorial compared to this trash."

When Chapon is asked if she'll reveal the legendary 11 secret ingredients that make the Colonel's chicken unique, her intense mood brightens for a second as she breaks into a grin followed by a lilting giggle.

"I'll never tell!"
Jimmy Dindon Jr. is a tall, thin man standing in the shade of a dying palm, observing the goings-on at the gallery from across the street. He is wearing a Phoenix Suns tee shirt, inside out, and lightly taps his leg with a riding crop ("It's just my thing, okay?").

Dindon visited the show earlier, and says he sees both sides of the story.
"I'll tell you something. Art or not, I think these museum people have underestimated the way the public feels about fried chicken. Look. If this was about liver or refried beans or grilled cheese, no big thing. But this . . . even with chicken, if they had a flag with Popeye's face on it in the toilet, it'd be a big joke! Who would care? The guy's a freakin' cartoon. But the Colonel, you know, we've all grown up with him, we've been eating his stuff forever.

"Sure, the artist's making a statement and the gallery's getting tons of publicity, that's what it's all about. Today, art is all about business, but chicken is all about, like, eating something good."

Not all of those leaving the gallery are upset with what they've seen; Chuck Haslet, a middle-aged man with a balding pate and a 12-inch ponytail, is one.

"Hey, I'm just glad somebody had the guts to put on a show like this. I sometimes wonder if people think about what Sanders was all about. The guy was essentially a figurehead for the Old South, and his whole visual image was like some kind of oppressive plantation overlord. Who cares if he's got a secret recipe--what's up with that?"

And even the younger set has an opinion on the emotional "Old Crispy" debacle. Tattooed teen Shayne Trussing stops skateboarding past the museum long enough to provide some quick insight: "So the Colonel is in the toilet. He's just in there, which is where the whole world is right now. That's cool."

kolonel sanderz was a simple man
offering a simple meal
to a simple country.
as his Statement was simple,
so is mine.
as his Statement is simple, so is mine.
and to those who see and
do not understand, i say this:
as kolonel sanderz made chicken
whose skin was thick,
was thick and crisp for those of you
who wanted it that way, so is mine.
for those who want it that way
and the others.

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