To celebrate the wedding of a favorite curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, sculptor Claes Oldenburg made a gift that looked pretty good to eat. Her white plaster multiple resembled a slice of double-layered cake, preserving the festive occasion by placing the moment in a state of eternal expectation.
Even today, fifty-five years later, the Oldenburg Wedding souvenir seems to be waiting for a late guest. And if that wayward guest meets the slice currently on display at the University of Arizona Art Museum, he or she will find plenty of other edible ersatz to go with it. The art of food is literally a feast for the eyes.
Food has tempted artists for at least 45,000 years, when prehistoric painters depicted warty pigs on cave walls in present-day Indonesia. According to Pliny the Elder, the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis demonstrated his greatness by depicting grapes so realistically that the birds came to feed on them, initiating a trompe-l’oeil tradition that continues to serve as a shortcut for the skill with a brush. Since our survival depends on food, we are all natural connoisseurs, listening for the slightest indication that something is rotten.
However, the predominance of food as an artistic subject cannot be fully explained by the need of painters to demonstrate their artistic prowess or even the need of societies to engage in magical thinking. Many of the works on display in the exhibit at the University of Arizona Art Museum suggest other motivations, ranging from the sensual to the intellectual.
The sensuality of the food is evident in Sherrie Wolf’s etchings, which juxtaposes famous nudes with fresh fruit. A porcelain sculpture by Chris Antemann makes the link even more explicit, while problematizing it. Expertly crafted in the Meissen tradition, its miniature shows a table laden with delicacies, one of which happens to be a scantily clad woman. The food is teasingly eroticized in the same space that the female figure is ostensibly objectified.
Damien Hirst captures a very different take on food in his Last Supper serigraphs series. Omelets, sandwiches and salads receive pharmaceutical packaging, evoking the emphasis on functionality and the preference for artifice in contemporary society: food must serve a purpose. In this frame, the appetite is an extravagance.
Of course, the logic behind Hirst’s ironic proposition is as rational as his graphic design. The sensuality of fruits can inspire humans and other animals to consume them, and pleasure can more generally motivate heterotrophs to seek out the necessary calories, but an omelet, sandwich, or salad is basically a bundle of energy enriched with nutrients that the body cannot synthesize on its own. Few works of art capture this fundamental truth so succinctly and wittily as that of Joseph Beuys. Capri battery, a small multiple consisting of a bright yellow bulb plugged into a lemon. Picked as a source of energy, citrus ostensibly power an artificial sun that can provide the energy needed for the lemons that will ultimately replace the original citrus battery.
With his Wedding souvenir, Oldenburg offers a gentle response to Beuys and Hirst. Although he is clearly inedible, his false slice of pie offers a visual treat that can synaesthetically activate pleasure centers denied by food in its primordial state. This is perhaps the best explanation for the insatiable appeal of food-inspired art. In other words, we are thirsty for it.
Full Disclosure: I am an Associate Researcher at the Desert Laboratory at the University of Arizona on Tumamoc Hill.