The joke in painting classes is that if you can’t render the living, breathing dynamic human figure, try a still life. Get it? Still, not moving, not painting… oh never mind.
For painters in many cultures — China, Japan, but especially the European tradition — three basic options existed before abstraction blew the doors off everything: the human form (as above), the landscape, and the still life. All three, of course, can be mixed and matched in various combos, or interpreted through a hundred and one genres: historical, religious, romantic, and so on.
But to the still life we owe one of the most interesting subjects that we are obsessed with still: food. For food — and its consumption, with all its metaphoric, symbolic and cultural possibilities — is one of the most open-ended subjects an artist or an activist can turn her or his attention to.
Early still lifes often portrayed food in its various stages, along with accoutrements: dead pheasants or glassy-eyed fish about to become food; robust squashes, luscious grapes; copper pots, crystal glasses; neat tables of dark wood covered with white linens.
For the rising merchant class in Renaissance Europe attempting to secure its status — which the early art world quickly realized was a far more promising market than church or state — any image of anything to do with wealth and power, such as good food, was a good thing to hang on your wall, as Martha Stewart and other arbiters of good taste will attest to today.
Of course, for the often-poor artist food was usually, and cheaply, at hand and, as noted earlier, very handily still — bonus for the slow painter or drawer.
Then morality crept into still lifes, as it tends to do in real life. Vanitas paintings, which often portray a skull or some such direct reminder that no one gets out of here alive, would also sometimes portray more subtle subjects such as food, which also never gets out of here alive.
Decay, it seems, is here to stay, as is food in art.
The contemporary art scene is still awash in paintings and performances and installations and videos, all relating to food and the act of consuming it. Who could resist, with so many levels of meaning, from nourishment to consumption to obsession with eating, or not. Then there are the institutional aspects: the social conventions, the rituals, the impacts on culture and on politics.
Food is so wonderfully open as a vehicle, with the context depending entirely on your place in history, in culture and in class.
Andy Warhol clearly saw the infinite possibilities of building art around food during his place in history. No coincidence he used the banana as emblem, which came to symbolize his Factory and pop art itself. Hands down, bananas are the most popular fruit in the world.
Then there were his famous Campbell’s soup cans, as much about mass production, pop culture and other big ideas as they were about food. Since his dear mom often fed him Campbell’s soup, it became Warhol’s ultimate comfort food, something he still served to visiting guests at his New York apartment even when he was immersed in fame and fortune and those white-haired wigs.
His silent film Eat was 45 minutes of nothing but pop artist Robert Indiana eating a mushroom. Think mushroom as food, but wait — what if it’s poisonous? Then there’s the scary mushroom cloud (atomic bomb). Things mushroom out of control — especially with mushrooms as hallucinogens, especially in the 1960s, especially in Warhol’s Factory world.
Robert Indiana was a pretty interesting food/art conjurer himself. He’s best known for his LOVE series of paintings, sculptures, rugs — you name it, it’s for sale. But his “EAT/DIE” series is even more intriguing. It’s based on the last word Indiana’s mom said to him on her deathbed: “Eat.” Ugh, what an exhortation to live and die by.
Janine Antoni, another Big Apple-based artist, has also come up with some pretty wild art pieces based on food and the body (she also dips her hair in paint and mops canvases with it, and loads her eyelashes with eyeliner and “draws” by blinking).
One of her most famous pieces, “Gnaw”, is a three-part installation/performance art piece based on two large cubes: one is 600 pounds of chocolate and the other, 600 pounds of lard. She partially gnawed both in performance in 1992.
Besides bristling with references to the art world (cubism, minimalism, Joseph Beuys and his lard obsession and all that), the whole piece drums up a cornucopia of cultural and political issues, especially around women and bulimia, consuming and discarding: What she would swallow, what would she spit out? How much would she, could she eat? Mouth as an organ to ingest, and to expel.
The final part was a display of 130 lipsticks Antoni made with pigment, beeswax, and lard she gnawed off and chewed from the lard cube, and more than two dozen heart-shaped packages — suitable for holding chocolates — made from chocolate she bit off and chewed from the chocolate cube.
Then there’s the Chinese artist, Zhu Yu, who, in his “Eating People” performance at the 2000 Shanghai Biennale professed to eat, what else?, people, even babies. But look closer — his snack pretty much looks like various pieces of meat stuck together.
If you want to check out a really wild card in the contemporary art/food constellation, log onto cloaca.org.
Any good naturalist will tell you that a cloaca is the derriere opening on some animals that carries out all intestinal, urinary and genital functions — sort of a three-holes-in-one deal.
For his truly sensational installation called “Cloaca”, Belgian artist Wim Delvoye has created a large complex Rube Goldberg-type machine that is “fed” fine Continental cuisine. At the end of a long elaborate process, the machine turns out what looks and smells much like shit, not to put too fine a point on it.
In a final very large tongue-in-cheek salute to consumerism and consumption, the little brown turds are subsequently vacuum-packed and sold on line.
Yes, you, too, can have your own unique, original piece of art to hang on your walls and impress all your class-mates with! Just imagine how your investment might grow.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer with a
most unusual lumpy pear on her wall. Contact her at email@example.com.