The All-American Sun Oven “helps you harness the power of the sun” in order to meet “the unique cooking needs of an American family.” Paul M. Munsen, founder of Sun Ovens International, wears a red, white, and blue polo shirt as he explains this in a YouTube tutorial playing on artist Arden Surdam’s desktop. Surdam has a well-used All-American Sun Oven tucked against the wall of her East L.A. studio. She first saw one a few years ago, when she was visiting a farm along the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. The oven consists of a glass-covered chamber and aluminum reflectors that fold open to catch and direct sunlight into the chamber. It also has a focusing cube, with two holes. When the sun shines through one hole into the other, the oven is getting optimal sunlight. “It looked like a camera to me,” Surdam recalls. “And I thought, well, why don’t I combine food and [photo] chemistry.”
Surdam, who was still in graduate school at CalArts at that point, had already been working with food. For one project, she enlisted a Beverly Hills baker to help her print photographs of meat onto red velvet cakes. She installed the cakes in a campus gallery and invited visitors to see and then eat them. A line formed before the gallery doors opened. One woman brought her own ice cream. “They literally consumed my work,” Surdam recalls. “It was something of a spectacle.” That prompted her to wonder if she could make photography and cooking more entwined.
She acquired a sun oven with the help of grant money and began putting food and photo chemicals on thick, handmade Japanese paper, which she then puts in the oven, exposing them to the sun to “develop.” She calls this project How to Tell When It’s Done. One image, a bacon cyanotype, is deeply blue. Another, Walk of Shame, hangs in her studio, a space with backyard sun access that she found after finishing school in 2015. She used the body of a squid and tannic acid to make it, and it looks like a swelling sea of green ooze, interrupted by cracked brown. “The excrement of the oven,” Surdam jokes. A Polaroid she took of the cooking process reveals how messy it can be: she has put food, oils, and chemicals onto paper inside the oven and on each of the light-reflecting panels. Raw meat, egg yolk, avocado, bread, and colored fluids mingle.
After they’re developed, Surdam scans her food-soaked images and enlarges them, so that they’re closer to the scale of a human body. “A lot of my work is about fetish,” she reflects. Food fetishes interest her, as do body fetishes and artworks themselves as fetish objects. In her studio now, she has large, colorful, messily abstract prints from the sun oven series on two walls. A flat file in the corner holds the now-smelly originals, many of which look like paintings. She plans to install this work at the artist-run Situation Room in L.A. in September and wants to do it in a way that reveals the unruliness of the process. Maybe the enlarged prints and food-soaked originals will mingle. “Right now, what interests me the most are artists working in multiple ways that aren’t medium specific,” Surdam says. She adds, of the impulses behind her own work, “It feels more about the possibility of photography.”