From ancient Egyptian tomb walls depicting ritual banquets to 17th-century Dutch still lifes to the luscious peaches of Cezanne, food has served as a subject for artists for centuries. Beginning with the 20th century, however, food has served artists in less conventional ways, as well. The use of food as an artist material, for example, dates from the beginning of the 20th century, when Dadaists, Surrealists and Futurists first began experimenting with food as a medium, be it chocolate, bread, sausage or candy. Today, a slew of contemporary artists are continuing in this vein by embracing food in their art, and a growing number of museums and galleries are finding these works an irresistible feast for their eyes, and, in some cases, stomachs.
Food Art Exhibits
"Food art is definitely getting more trendy," said New York-based artist Alisoun Meehan. "The Wayne Thiebaud exhibit at the Whitney last year brought people back to thinking about it ... Many of the artists I'm seeing now are putting food right in your face and using it in some new way."
Meehan should know. She recently curated the truck show, "Dining Haul: Sweets," whose theme was pastry, sugar and chocolate. Five award-winning New York pastry chefs were paired up with five emerging New York artists to create edible projects that were then exhibited in trucks. Meehan created a seven-tiered wedding cake based on meat with chef Colette Peters.
"The response was spectacular. We had 1,500 people come to the one-day show, and many works sold for anywhere from $25 to $15,000," she said. The next "Dining Haul" exhibit is slated for June 15. "More and more people who either use food in their projects or in their imagery have been approaching me about future projects. At this point I have a roster of 60 artists."
While Meehan's exhibit took place in a non-traditional setting, a growing number of more traditional venues, like museums and galleries, are exploring food as an artistic medium as well. The Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard University, for example, recently held the exhibit "Eat Art: Joseph Beuys, Dieter Roth, Sonja Alhauser," which featured more than 50 sculptures, prints and drawings by these three German artists who use food like chocolate, margarine, salami, tea bags, honey and mayonnaise as artistic materials.
"The use of nontraditional, especially edible and organic materials, is a major theme in 20th-century art," explained Exhibit Curator Tanja Maka. "Food is a major part of our everyday lives, and when it is used by an artist to communicate a message, it is transformed into a new medium that departs from its everyday associations."
Highlights of the show included Roth's "Chocolate Lion" (1971), a three-decade-old sculpture made of chocolate which the museum recently purchased; Beuy's "Economic Values;" and Alhauser's edible sculptures, which are made of chocolate, popcorn, caramel and marzipan and proved so enticing they were nibbled on by visitors.
According to Maka, the show was a hit. "This exhibit was more provocative than what some people were used to, but I think most people were inspired. As a visitor, you were forced to have an opinion of it. The smell of chocolate was really intense, for example, and it was interesting to see how people reacted to Alhauser's work--whether by eating it, smelling it or breaking it."
Another venue that is serving the genre well is the recently opened COPIA: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts in Napa, Calif. There, the exhibit "Sweet Tooth" will open next January and will feature more than 100 paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs and prints by 39 artists who use sweets in their work. The roster of participating artists ranges from artists who use food as a medium, like Vik Muniz and Sandy Skoglund, to artists who reference food in their art, like Wayne Thiebaud and Claes Oldenburg. …