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Finding Community in the Common

by Na'dayah Pugh

[DOWNLOAD OF THIS IMAGE IS PROHIBITED.] Russell T. Gordon, American, 1936-2013, Hot Dog Bridge, 1974, color lithograph, image: 12 3/16 x 15 3/8 in. (31 x 39 cm), sheet: 17 x 19 3/8 in. (43.2 x 49.2 cm). Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Gift of Dr. Christopher A. Graf and Janet Graf, his wife, 74.28.12. ©Estate of Russell T. Gordon.

Russell T. Gordon’s “Hot Dog Bridge” depicts exactly what the title suggests: a hot dog bridge connecting two sides of a canyon-like figure, complete with a backdrop of sky, clouds, and rainbow. This simplicity of style, when coupled with the unsophistication of a hot dog, emphasizes the ability of food to invoke feelings of nostalgia and connection in a modest, relatable manner that’s easily accessible to a broad audience, allowing for a sense of community to be found through the artwork.

The technical aspects of the piece are simple: saturated colors, sharp edges, minimal shading, and a lack of depth of field. Together, these features suggest a primitiveness in quality—it’s as though a child could’ve painted it. The backdrop of the piece is reminiscent of a playroom or daycare wall, a bright blue sky with clouds and a rainbow. The youthful nature of these elements conjures a sense of nostalgia; it is almost as if the viewer is transported back to a kindergarten classroom, complete with finger paint, construction paper, and crayon-covered walls. Though experiences are never identical, the youthfulness that these details suggest is applicable to a wide audience.

The piece boasts a simplicity in terms of its actual subject. Hot dogs are finger foods, requiring no silverware. They are quickly boiled or grilled, then slathered with ketchup or mustard, topped with relish and onions, and held in grubby fingers. The hot dog lacks sophistication but is nevertheless a cornerstone of American food culture. Hot dogs are found at many different outdoor gatherings—cookouts, barbeques, and Fourth of July firework watch parties, to name a few common ones. They require little cooking skill and are cheap and affordable, providing a quick dinner and a sense of comfort in many households. Because of this simplicity, they are accessible. They are easy to relate to. Different types of people can connect over something as simple as a hot dog in a bun.

When combined, the painting’s simple technical elements and unsophisticated choice of food allow a relatability and universality. The universal nature of youth and the accessibility of hot dogs make the painting a piece of art in which all kinds of people can find some element of familiarity. Though not everyone will find the same meaning in the piece, the relatability of its techniques and subject makes it easy for audiences to connect with the image and, through the artwork, each other. In this way, the painting accomplishes the same feat that its “bridge” does. It connects otherwise separated parties through something simple, yet universal: food.


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