PJ Harvey Cameos at Sue Webster’s Cookbook Launch

There are likely few reasons one could find to compare Sue Webster and Gwyneth Paltrow. Perhaps some basic UK proximity, but similarities between the consciously uncoupled actress-cum-lifestyle guru and the artist known for her and partner Tim Noble’s “rubbish” sculptures seem to end there. That is, until Webster made a cookbook — “The Folly Acres Cookbook,” to be precise, which celebrated its New York launch at publisher Other Criteria on Wednesday. Named for the farm she bought in Gloucestershire with Noble, the project began in a good faith, holistic desire to learn to prepare the food she grew. “It started life as a proper cookbook,” Webster told us, later citing Paltrow’s style, “but then I lost interest halfway.” Instead, what became of her last four years in the country is a strange hybrid between culinary instruction, memoir, and day-to-day diary, splatted with drawings made in wine and scrawled pencil notes (e.g., “—RED ONION —other stuff….”), intercut with extensive photo-documentation of meat-slicing and entwined carrots. “This is a punk-y cookbook. This is a fucked-up cookbook,” Webster added. “Some of them are edible, and some of them are just ideas.”

These ideas, none more than a page or so long, range from to travel anecdotes to childhood scars, each sparked by a particular ingredient or farm guest. For example, “A Salad for Polly,” which was “invented for the occasion when singer/songwriter PJ Harvey, a local to the area, come to visit us girls for lunch one day,” combines helpful tips (“Always chop spring onions and asparagus on on the slant, presentation is everything!”) with personalized texture (“Do not add mustard to the dressing, or to anything for that matter, if Polly is your guest”). Harvey herself appeared in full force to celebrate at Other Criteria, reading aloud the poem she wrote for the book’s introduction before grabbing her black lacquered acoustic and launching into a few of Webster’s favorites — “C’mon, Billy,” “Dress,” and “April” — her voice its usual soul-plying powerhouse, her foot tapping restless at the stage.

It’s an urgency that ran throughout the work assembled for the launch. “I never thought there was a point in spending more time cooking something than it took to eat it,” Webster said — and that slap-bang attitude was on full view in a looping video piece, which showed the artist, clad in the same “Bleeker Street Records” t-shirt she wore to the opening, preparing a dish called “Two Lovers Entwined on a Bed of Carnage” (AKA, two squirrel skins laid on a platter of greenery, which she chopped using items from a toolkit, elbowing a carpenter’s square into the chives).

And so too with her line drawings, disjointed figures scrambled in overlapping lines — which, upon closer examination, revealed themselves to games of “Exquisite Corpse,” paper creases still intact. “I played it with myself blindfolded just to make it more difficult,” Webster explained. “Everything about this cookbook is difficult. I mean, I could’ve typed it on a computer and sent it to a designer to set for me, but I didn’t. I decided to type the whole thing myself, by hand, on a 70-year-old typewriter from the Third Reich.” It shows: every “S” in the book replaced with that unmistakable jagged “SS,” “B”s intermittently become “ß,” the occasional umlauted “Ö” — again, “just to make it more difficult.”

“It drives you insane,” Webster said of country living, and indeed each facet of the project — the bronze casts of vegetables, say, or the frantic pen lines on a Virgin Atlantic bag that congeal into a snarling cat — hum with a desire to stave off the stillness, that hollow, nature-inflected quiet. The whole book feels like an embodied fidget, lightning caught in its pages. Or, in Webster’s words, her once Paltrow-esque foodie endeavor “became in essence an insight into what it takes to feed an artist’s mind.”

Asked about future projects, Webster insisted that her relocation isn’t permanent: “I’m not going to give up the city. I need the aggression and the adrenaline of the city in order to make work.” But it’s worth keeping the farm, it seems, if not for the frenzied creative spirals, then at least the newfound veggie appreciation.

— Anneliese Cooper (@DawnDavenport)

(Photos: Samantha Nandez for BFA; book image courtesy Other Criteria)