The art fabricator behind Ed Ruscha's Chocolate Room on creating a deliciously immersive experience
Art is a delicious family tradition for Ron McPherson and La Paloma Fine Arts. Along with his wife, Edan, and their children, Robin and Daniel, McPherson's fabrication company has installed every iteration of Ed Ruscha's Chocolate Room since the work was re-created for a 1995 survey of contemporary art at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
Crafting an immersive experience from 100 pounds of screenprinted Hershey's chocolate requires an intimate understanding of the medium, which McPherson treats with a sort of reverence. "There's kind of a voodoo involved in chocolate. It has a lot of very specific parameters that it likes and doesn't like," he said. "It has its very own specific demands. You don't control it. And even when you get it printed, it's a little bit of a trick to handle because you can't touch it. Even if you put your hand on the back of the sheet, the heat from your hand leaves kind of a permanent handprint."
Exerting influence on such a sensitive medium makes the installation of Chocolate Room a serious challenge, but it's one McPherson and his team have gotten down to a science. "The chocolate can't be stored, so every time it's made it's made, it's made fresh, then tailored in the size and stuff to the specific location," he explained. "You don't want to get it too hot, but it has to be hot enough so it doesn't dry up in the screen. And so once we get everyone trained and working, it's kind of a very tight choreography to keep it going and keep it happening."
"There's kind of a voodoo involved in chocolate."
Ruscha originally created Chocolate Room for the 35th Venice Biennale. At the time, he often used organic materials — such as caviar, tobacco, and coffee — and commercial products like Pepto-Bismol in his drawings and prints. Upon being asked to participate in the celebrated international art exhibition, he decided to continue this experimentation.
"I was given a room and I was given a silkscreen printer, and the idea of making shingles and shingling the walls with pieces of paper covered in chocolate, actual chocolate — I was just completely absorbed by it," he said.
For the Chocolate Room installation in Oklahoma Contemporary's Ed Ruscha: OKLA, McPherson and his family team worked alongside the arts center's Exhibitions and Visitor Experience staff to create the immersive environment. Together they broke up and melted approximately 600 Hershey's chocolate bars onsite in the installation room, where the more than 300 screenprinted sheets dried on metal racks before being applied to the walls.
For Visitor Experience associate Cara Alizadeh, the process of working on the installation drew the rest of the exhibition into sharper relief. "It was amazing to not only witness it, but to be able to have that hands-on experience," they said. "I haven't done that much screenprinting, so my first real introduction to it was here, doing this. The La Paloma Team was super nice and helpful, encouraging us to ask questions and be involved in the process. Understanding how labor intensive this is really made me appreciate the rest of the works in the show."
McPherson said that understanding — of the labor involved in working with such a volatile medium — is shared by the artist himself. "Like I say, it's the chocolate that controls things, and Ed has a good understanding of that," he said. "He's not trying to make it do something he wants. He's working with the medium and learning at the same time we are."
When visitors to Oklahoma Contemporary's landmark Ed Ruscha: OKLA walk into Chocolate Room for themselves, McPherson hopes they'll give themselves over to the experience. "I hope they just see what it is and really don't get perplexed about how it happened," he said. "I mean, when you first look at it, if you don't read the title, and you have a cold and can't smell anything, then it's kind of wide open. But I don't think I have any real specific expectations from it in that way. It just seems to have a universal appeal to it. That's quite magic."
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