From Still Life To Real Life: Food Art And Its Place in the Art World

Reminiscent Of A Still Life Painting

Artist Jason Baalman doesn’t use the most conventional materials for his artwork. When he unveiled his large portrait of Rachael Ray on her television program “The Rachel Ray Show,” there was a lot of chatter among the art community— not because it was poorly executed or visually offensive, but because the image was made completely out of Cheetos. Though tacky to some, her enlarged, cheesy face is a surprisingly realistic and impressive representation of the television star.  Like an impressionist painting, the use of different Cheetos flavors allows the eyes to blend the different colors in his palette. Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are used for darker shades, while White Cheddar Cheetos represent the lighter hues. Reminiscent of a Van Gogh portrait—Cheetos resemble blocky brush strokes on canvas, settled together with ease. For a minute, you are struck by the keen attention to detail, but then you snap back to reality and remember: This is food. Food… as art. But is it art?

As an object, how can food become art? In the article “What is Fine Art?” by artist and author Dolores G. Kaufman, she explains: 

“when we call something fine art we are signifying a context into which the object has already been placed, or the context into which we are placing it. Context is, quite simply, a room-like space into which we place an object. Take an apple for example, and place it in the kitchen. In that space it is perceived as food for eating. Appearing in a space designed for religious prayer or meditation, the apple could be seen as an offering or as a symbol of the forbidden. Or, an artist just might grab it from the kitchen and take it into her studio where ‘voila!’ it becomes food for art. “ 

It’s as simple as that. 

Because of its doomed mortality, art made out of food products has a once-in-a-lifetime viewing experience. However, it also has a quality of making people feel extremely uncomfortable because, unlike conventional art, this “food art” is not timeless. Intrinsically short-lived, these artworks most obviously have a tendency to break, melt, or mold—all stages that most people immediately associate with trash.  But these different phases in the lifespan of food items, much like phases in our lives, come and go as days pass. This concept of expiration is what makes food art fascinating. When you see a particular work of art that is made out of food, as a viewer, your experience is unique because you are viewing it during a period that has never happened before and will never happen again.  Michelangelo’s “David” (1504) has stood the test of time because it was made out of marble, but sculptor Cosimo Cavallaro’s giant “House of Cheese” (2001) melted after merely days of its completion.  

Where can we trace the origin of this art form to? We are all familiar with the term “still life,” which the Encyclopedia of Irish and World Art describes as a painting depicting a stationary scene with inanimate objects arranged in a particular manner. The most iconic objects in still life paintings are a table with a basket of fruit, such as Cezanne’s painting “Still Life with Basket of Apples,” from 1890-94. Still life paintings are usually associated with balance, depth, color, accuracy, realism, harmony, representation, and point of view. To the average viewer, they’re simply paintings of fruit. As years pass, the subject matter of still life paintings (such as the tables, table cloths, and sometimes the fruit) can evolve. In our modern world, still life paintings can be seen with images of a more bountiful selection with an array of exotic fruits and vegetables, or with images of more modern food products like potato chips and soda.  Unlike the era of the Impressionists, today we are familiar with the growing accessibility to a variety of international food items. In addition, we are also familiar with the “sterilization” of food products—a subject author Michael Pollan writes about in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, describing modern food products and meals as having the nutrients removed and ingredients in meals substituted with other processed ingredients. Perhaps modern still life painters are trying to show us how different our culture and our food have become? Still life paintings, regardless of when they were created, all share the same concept: a simple image of ordinary objects that shape society as we know it. 

Sculptures made out of food items are a different concept.  In food art, the materials used can matter more than the subject. The use of materials can challenge the viewers’ judgment when they are introduced to seeing art made out of something other than classical materials like marble, stone, or wood. In the case of Janine Antoni, she stunned museum goers with her 1992 conceptual piece titled “Gnaw,” a 3-part installation piece consisting of both a 600lb cube of chocolate and a 600lb cube of lard that have been literally “gnawed” on every corner so that teeth marks are evident and large chunks on the corners are missing. Is it art? As Antoni explains, “I titled this ‘Gnaw’ because I am interested in the bite as a kind of primal urge. I love to look at a little baby when they put everything in their mouth in order to know it, and through that process, they destroy it.  I was interested in the bite because it was both intimate and destructive.” Whether the viewer considers this to be art or not, we are all familiar with feeling that urge to taste something, whether it is unfamiliar, a favorite dish, or something that smells outstanding.

Sculpture using food is no shock to artist Jim Victor. Victor has sculpted massive works out of materials like peanut brittle, cheese, vegetables, chocolate, and butter. In the last year alone, he even fashioned busts of football players Ndamukong Suh and CJ Spiller out of pepperoni, cheese, and olives. A majority of his food sculptures are made out of butter—an ingredient often thought of as soft and spreadable. His butter creations usually represent animals or farm life. Butter isn’t typically artistic, but in this case it is Victor’s personal artistic vision executed by the material best suited to him.

In some cases of food art, viewers are welcome to take part in the art experience and share, savor, and be a part of the art work itself. For instance, relational aesthetics artist Felix Gonzales-Torres and his piece “Untitled (Portrait of Ross)” from 1991, is literally a massive 175lb mound of different candies wrapped in different colors.  Museum visitors are welcome to take a piece of this candy mound with them as they pass through the gallery, and every night, the candy is replenished by the museum. At its home in the Chicago Art Institute, this exhibit raises a lot of eyebrows from the art community. Is it art? There are two ways you could look at it. First, it is art because it challenges the typical art “stereotype” in a museum.  Normally, a museum visitor is watched by security guards and surrounded by signs donning “PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH THE ARTWORK”; but here, you are invited to touch the art and take a little piece of it home with you, whether in your pocket or your belly. Second, it is art because by contributing, you are taking away from a 175lb pile made up as a whole, and this “invited stealing” of the art can be in correlation with themes of artistic involvement and the viewer/artist connection as well as themes of greed and emaciation. Ross, whom the piece was named after, was the artist’s partner. Once 175lbs, Ross literally wasted away while battling AIDS up until his death in 1992. When you take the candy from this artwork, you take a part of Ross away from him, but you are also taking part of his story, whether for yourself or to share with someone else.

As for artist Jason Baalman, the museum isn’t always the place for his art. Known for creating portraits out of an array of materials (mostly food products), Baalman houses most of his artwork in his studio in Colorado. He has become an internet sensation by making videos of his artistic process and posting them on his YouTube site. According to the article “Idle Hands” by Edie Adelstein, Baalman started out working in his parent’s chocolate factory before beginning his career as a professional portrait artist. Though he has no formal training, Baalman presents a deep understanding of using smaller materials that work together to create a final product. His Cheeto portrait of Rachel Ray wasn’t the first of his creations—he has previously created images of talk show host Conan O’Brien and music legend Elvis Presley using these cheesy snacks. Because of the preservatives in Cheetos, Adelstein writes that “Baalman insists he rarely uses a fixative or a varnish to preserve the works. The food is embalmed with so many preservatives, he says, that once they dry up, not even the bugs will touch them.”  Baalman has also been popularized for other portraits such as an American soldier made out of toy Army men and Abraham Lincoln made out of pennies. 

So, is Rachel Ray’s Cheeto face art? When we consider the mortality, color, structure, material, and composition, all of these components together can attribute to its artistic integrity. However, it’s the food that makes it so remarkable. Food symbolizes culture, history, and coming together, but as art, these concepts are brought to life. Whether using different flavors of Cheetos, chocolate, butter, or cheese, art made out of food has certainly made heads turn in the art community.  Though unconventional to classical art standards, this “food art” can be seen in museums and galleries across the globe—whether it’s a still life painted by an old master or a giant butter sculpture. Food art gives the viewer a little something more to sink their teeth into, and offers a different take on how we look at and consider works of art to be. In fact, it might make you think a little bit different about yourself and what you put into your body.  Until then, we have artists to show us the way, using food as a different yet tasty addition to the art world.

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