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:

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.

So reads a recent press release from the artist Cruz Nardini; the only words of explanation he has offered to the public so far. Since the controversy began, Nardini has been in seclusion in his studio at Bridgewater Township, a small Connecticut hamlet of artists and manufacturers of pleasure craft.

Outside art circles, Nardini is not widely known. He received some note in 1987 for his work "Green Covered by Black," a sculpture of TV's Gumby bent into a relaxed position, drenched in crude oil. Three years later, he gained attention for "Cupcake Marathon Death," a piece featured at New York's notorious Turmoil Gallery consisting of a clay likeness of Little Debbie clutching a snack cake, spinning on a turntable with the speed control nailed symbolically to 78.

Despite Nardini's recurring choice of what seem to be intentionally disturbing themes--the ritual transmogrification of beloved American cultural icons--some experts defend his creations.

"Art is all about what you think about it," rationalizes nationally recognized art critic Bridgette Flavor. "And if you think about it at all, then it is art."

The pro-Sanders backlash against the "OCACFO" showing has even brought Washington, D.C., into the fray.

"Nardini's craven exhibit goes way beyond just being an insult to the Colonel. This is an insult to fried chicken, and, therefore, an insult to a staple of the American nourishment regimen," exhorts Robert Plumerepas, executive director of the National Council on Edible Fowl.

"The NCEF promotes the role fried chicken has played in the culinary makeup of our country, not only from a fundamental, historical perspective, but in terms of the overall sociodietary-economic spectrum. To me, this work of art--and it honestly sickens me to use such a term--is nothing more than a vulgar stab at the ingenuity of an American icon. Ingenuity that has given us Extra Tasty Crispy, Tender Roast and, of course, Original Recipe."

Prominent poultry sociologist Alfred Bantam-Spence, author of the acclaimed 1992 best seller And They Walked on Three Toes, provides background:

"You must realize that fried chicken arrived in the New World along with the first Europeans, who had handed down preparation techniques for generations. Prior to that, American Indian tribes were well-aware of the savory and nutritional qualities--fried and otherwise--of the chicken's close relative, the turkey," explains the professor. "This serendipitous confluence of indigenous recipes provided the first palpable bond between the two ethnic groups; what some anthropologists have since referred to as 'the commonality of succulence.'

"From there, chicken--in a fried sense--went on to grace the tables of rich and poor, slave and master, laborer and king of industry," continues Bantam-Spence. "And, certainly, one must acknowledge the international impact of the tributary dishes: a la king, breasts amandine, tarragon, curry-baked, smothered. The list goes on and on.

"When Colonel Harland Sanders introduced his chicken in the mid-Thirties, it was a major addition to flavor and skin texture that has yet to be duplicated. Popeye's, Church's, even Kenny Rogers' Roasters--none has come close. And, as a professional sociologist, the element that intrigues me most is the character of Sanders himself. He is much more than a representative of fast-food fowl; the white-linen suit, the attitude of grace and the avuncular congeniality are evocative of a simpler, grander America.

"And, in their own fashion, the Colonel's mashed potatoes and gravy are actually quite compelling as well."

Though Bantam-Spence admits that he has not personally visited the exhibit, he feels, based on Nardini's piece, that "the show cannot possibly have any redeeming values, regardless of whatever gastronomic rights certain antichickenists may be presenting."

I remember prayin' to God Almighty, "You've helped me in the past, and I need Your help now, God. And I promise You, if this idea of franchising works out because of Your blessing, You'll get Your share."

Thus wrote Colonel Harland Sanders himself in his 1974 autobiography Life, As I Have Known It, Has Been Finger Lickin' Good. Yes, apparently He made the "franchising work," much to the delight of the Colonel and chicken lovers everywhere.

But to Cruz Nardini--and perhaps to others--Sanders' Kentucky Fried empire is something that doesn't work. And, yes, that is the beauty of America, where food is art and art is life and fingers are allowed to be pointed at issues, be they finger-lickin' good or not.

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Peter Gilstrap
Contact: Peter Gilstrap