On a recent October night, about 300 people gathered on a concrete plain just south of the Sepulveda Dam to have dinner and watch a movie together as part of the Los Angeles Times Food Bowl. After a year and a half of pandemic living, every day barely distinguishable from the one before, the Los Angeles premiere of the documentary feature "Man in the Field: The Life and Art of Jim Denevan" at the dam was a welcome opportunity to reconnect with the community — and with Los Angeles itself.
"Man in the Field," directed by Patrick Trefz, focuses on Jim Denevan's dual passions. Denevan is both a visual artist who makes temporary land art so massive and geometrically precise, it is best appreciated from the air, and the chef/creator behind "Outstanding in the Field," a long-running series of outdoor dinners where local chefs cook on site for hundreds of people. The documentary reveals that these seemingly unrelated interests are, in fact, deeply intertwined.
As an artist, Denevan typically works alone, using a broom or a rake to draw a monumental mathematical pattern in the sand at a beach or in the desert. A surfer with a knack for detailed and accurate weather predictions, he is aware of how quickly each piece will be erased by the incoming tide or a strong wind.
The "Outstanding in the Field" dinners are just as fleeting. Denevan and his team arrive at the selected location (typically a farm) the day of the event and set up everything from the cooking tents to the table itself. Each meal happens just once, with local chefs curating a special four- or five-course menu that uses the freshest ingredients available. Guests find out what's being served only after they arrive.
The dinners are designed with the same mathematical precision as Denevan’s art. Dining tables are set up end-to-end so they resemble one long, curving table from above, and the table's overall shape is determined by the features of the local landscape. On a farm, the table might trace the lines of a field or curve through an orchard. On a beach, it might follow the shoreline. Denevan and his team use shims to create a smooth, even table, no matter the topography, and each table setting is perfectly placed. The table itself feels like a work of art, and as the Sepulveda Dam event begins, Denevan’s staff do their best to maintain that aesthetic, softly asking individual guests not to hang their bag or jacket over their chairs.
When possible, Denevan also creates site-specific art at his dinners. There's no sand at the dam, so he worked with water instead. Using mops and buckets of water, Denevan and his team made a radial design on the concrete, transforming the space between the movie screen and the semi-circular dining table. The piece was ephemeral, like all of Denevan’s work; it began to evaporate almost as soon as it was in place.
After a performance by Santa Monica-based dance company Jacob Jonas The Company that evoked the value of human connection, everyone sat down to dinner. Guests ranged from ticket-buying "Outstanding in the Field" regulars to the featured farmers, the filmmakers and their family and friends.
Dinner is served family style, which Denevan believes helps people connect with each other. In the documentary, he says, "People can come to the table, whether they've had the easiest life imaginable, or the most difficult, or anything in between, but they're always going to recognize their common humanity when they sit at a long table and share a dish."
"Man in the Field" is visually impressive — both Denevan’s expansive art and his farm dinners provide for stunning drone footage — but it offers more than just beautiful scenery. It also delves into Denevan’s complex family history and the motivation behind his Zen-like art practice. His work may be temporary, but he creates shared experiences that feel meaningful and memorable. Denevan is driven by his desire for connection, whether it's with nature, with his food, or with the people around him. The movie was shot before the pandemic, but its theme feels especially timely.
They're always going to recognize their common humanity when they sit at a long table and share a dish.Jim Denevan, "Man in the Field: The Life and Art of Jim Denevan"
Watching the documentary at the Sepulveda Dam, the lush green farms on the screen stood in sharp contrast with the audience’s concrete surroundings. One guest commented on the odd disparity, pointing out the lights of the 101 in the distance and noting that in Los Angeles, "We farm movies." As both the story of one artist and a celebration of connection, "Man in the Field" is a beautiful harvest.