JENNY DRUMGOOLE is done with cream cheese.
And anyone who attends her show, "Real Woman of Philadelphia," which opened Friday at Moore College of Art, might be finished with it, too.
Drumgoole is a video artist who graduated from Yale's prestigious master of fine arts program. Her latest project was prompted by a "Real Women of Philadelphia" contest sponsored by Philadelphia Cream Cheese and Southern-fried Food Network cooking show host Paula Deen. Participants (ladies only, please) were assigned to create recipes using cream cheese and posting mini-cooking shows online each week.
But Drumgoole's videos aren't anything like the other entries. While the more traditional cooks excitedly proffer cream-cheese-themed recipes, Drumgoole's offerings are surreal and funny pieces of performance art that have little to do with cooking - unless crafting John Rambo's head out of 20 blocks of cream cheese seems like an untapped culinary avenue.
Each video features Drumgoole in her Kensington kitchen, usually with a drink in hand and including occasional cameos from her cat. She speaks in an enthusiastic, wide-eyed way, which isn't too different from many of the other Deen-acolytes posting to the site.
But then Drumgoole's videos go off the rails: Rather than cook, she does anything but, entering into a video game-esque wonderland that leads to her taking a bite out of a stick of butter mashed with cream cheese.
Drumgoole's mom was a Deen fanatic and persuaded her daughter to enter the contest, despite her lack of cooking enthusiasm or expertise. "Real Philadelphia" winners would be given a trip to Savannah, Ga., to meet lard-loving Deen herself, and Drumgoole figured if she won she could get her mom's Deen cookbook autographed.
The contest site was set up like a Facebook profile - a portal where participants could post videos and facts about themselves and "friend" others. Drumgoole thought she was going to be eliminated immediately, but she began to friend people and found out these women were just like her mom.
While Drumgoole admitted that most people on the site probably thought she was crazy, many of the women began to embrace her, especially after someone using the name Paula Deen posted positive comments about one of her videos.
But whether it was the real "Come on in, y'all!" Deen or a paid marketing minion is what inspired Drumgoole's narrative and became the focus of the Moore exhibit. When the veil was lifted on the process behind the contest, Drumgoole saw themes about family, consumerism, celebrityhood and food emerge.
Although Drumgoole posted nine video "recipes" on the site (you can see them on YouTube), it's the tenth video that ties all of the threads together. You'll have to visit the exhibit at Moore to see the big reveal.
"I've always been interested in celebrity and hero worship, and a lot of my work is about becoming obsessed with some sort of pop-culture icon," Drumgoole said. "When I started, I had no idea what was going to happen, or how it was going to end up."
That notion of spontaneity is integral to Drumgoole's work. "I always think that life will hand you way more interesting material than what I can come up with sitting in a studio by myself," she said.
That's what happened with another one of Drumgoole's videos: "Wingbowl 13."
That piece chronicles Drumgoole's experience as a Wingette at the WIP eating contest, where she escorted Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas, the 98-pound Korean competitive eating champ. Decked out in a decolletage-revealing leopard-print suit and sporting teased Aqua Net-sprayed hair, Drumgoole fawns over Thomas while the crowd boos viciously every time Thomas' name is called. The video deals with notions of celebrity and gender within the context of one of Philly's loudest and grossest traditions.
Telling Thomas' story is what pushed Drumgoole into video. She was initially a still photographer but was discouraged by the medium's restrictions. "I wanted to tell a story, and that's much harder to do in a still image. So I went out and got a video camera," said Drumgoole. "The first video I made was Wingbowl. . . . It's about storytelling and being able to craft a narrative."
When Drumgoole was working in still photos, family themes dominated her work, and this is the first time she's been able to explore those issues in video. "My mom's not a fan of Paula Deen anymore," Drumgoole said about her mom's reaction to the big reveal.
For her next step, Drumgoole is contemplating creating a variety show for public-access TV. "I like the idea of someone stumbling upon this at 3 o'clock in the morning," she said.
She likes that happenstance takes her work into directions out of her control."It keeps everything fresh," Drumgoole said. "I hand myself to life and see where it takes me."
"Real Woman of Philadelphia," Moore College of Art & Design, 20th Street and the Ben Franklin Parkway, through March 15, free, 215-965-4000, moore.edu. Drumgoole will lecture on "Real Woman of Philadelphia" at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 24.