The Klines make a fine, funny art of dining out


klines-bookBy Lonnie Burstein Hewitt

When you were a school-kid, did your parents ever tell you: Don’t play with your food? Debby and Larry Kline started doing just that in art school, back in the 1980s, and it led them into a very successful career.

An exhibit of some of the pieces they’ve created extemporaneously on restaurant tabletops opened at the Athenaeum Sept. 28. “The Klines: Dinner and a Movie” may be the most fun you’ll have at an art show this year.

The opening reception marked the debut of their book, hot off the presses, titled “Dinner with the Klines.” The dinner plate on the cover is their new DVD, with moving pictures of their work. The book tells the stories behind the pieces, and the movie is part of the Athenaeum show.

At dinner, the Klines don’t bring anything to the table but themselves and their talent for improvisation. No adhesives, no scissors, no tools.

“Each piece is a direct response to what we find in the restaurant,” Larry said. “We’re architects too,” Debby added. “The pieces have to balance.”

The couple’s collaborative style shows in their conversation. They riff off each other, like jazz musicians.

HE: “The thing that’s magic for us is those cheap napkin rings with glue on the inside.”

SHE: “We could build a universe with them!”

The Klines have done larger, more serious works, like their Jerusalem dome made of mud bricks shaped like gas-guzzling vans; paper tiger tanks, in a pentagon formation; and the self-destructing “Peaces.”

“We pose provocative questions, challenge preconceptions and generally screw with context to make a point,” they wrote in their online artists’ statement. “Humor softens the blow.”

Even their “Dinner” pieces have a point to make.

HE: “We think about the amount of waste. Just about everything we use would be thrown out.”

SHE: “Except we’re saving it all!”

The original pieces are sculptures; some are on view at the Athenaeum. But mostly what we see are the photos of their finished works.

HE: “We shoot our own photos.”

SHE: “With a point-and-shoot Olympus. The staging is important. Sometimes people are disappointed when they see the original pieces, how small they are.”

Staging IS important. A clever close-up turns salt-and-pepper shakers into monumental pillars in their “Lincoln Memorial.” And there’s something powerful in the diagonal layout of “Ketchup Elvis,” with its butter-packet guitar leaning against the prone ketchup bottle that just poured out a portrait of the King on a common dinner-plate.

How do the restaurant workers respond to the Klines?

HE: “At first we can see they’re thinking about asking us to leave. Then they get into it, and start bringing us stuff.”

SHE: “It becomes public art, in a sense. It brings art to people who never go to museums.”

Do the two of them always come up with a good finished piece?

HE: “It’s always a grand experiment. Nine times out of ten it seems like nothing will emerge, but at the last minute it does.”

Sometimes, the Klines say, there are miracles, like the “Virgin of Guadalupe Chipotle,” an aluminum-foil food tray that started out as Angelina Jolie’s lips.

HE: “And Elvis—that was a verifiable miracle. We spilled the ketchup and there it was. The staff wanted to keep it, but we persuaded them to sell it to us.”

SHE: “It was a glass plate, not paper or plastic.”

HE: “They finally gave us a bill, for $2.16.”