Happy New Year! Yes, January is already almost over, but I am finally feeling like I have emerged from the endless crush of projects that seem to pile up at the end of the semester/year and the haze that is the holiday season. In reflecting back on the last month, however, I could not help but thinking–unsurprisingly given the time of year–about how much time I have spent recently (happily) in the kitchen: cooking, baking, and cocktail-making. While resisting the urge to just go ahead and start writing a food blog, I cannot help but also muse over how much connectivity exists between the things in my kitchen and the sculptural things I wrestle with at my desk. Sure, there are the more obvious examples like the Imperia Pasta Maker. With its wooden crank handle, metal heft, and glossy, cherry red finish, this beautiful thing churns out delicate strips of dough, transformed further into all varieties of shapes, but more frequently rests, enjoying pride of place on one of our shelves, as a beloved aesthetic object. There is also the panoply of contorted, textured fruits and vegetables–the nubby celery root, the fuzzy kiwi, the sinuous pepper–and the processes that seem to mimic the activities of the sculptor’s studio–kneading dough, frosting (patinating?!) a cake, chiseling a butternut squash, etc.
Of course the connection between food and art is as old as humanity itself and certainly not limited to sculpture. As I was reminded of during a recent visit to the enticing Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture and Cuisine at the Art Institute of Chicago, there is a rich tradition of food as subject matter in painting: from the hunting images on the walls of the Lascaux Caves to Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s wonderfully bizarre portraits composed of food to Raphaelle Peale’s bowls of peaches so incandescently rendered you can almost feel the fuzz of their skins and smell their ripe, sweet scent.
There is however, something about the shared three-dimensionality of sculpture and food—their mutual ability to generate powerful multi-sensory, spatial experiences—that generates an especially potent, if unsettling, charge. Looking at a still life painting of a bowl of fruit or a cake is quite different than standing in front of a massive cloth “cake slice” sculpture or a paint splattered papier mâché hamburger. While many postwar artists like Claes Oldenburg turned to food for inspiration, manipulating scale and materials to comment on the dynamics of consumption in the modern world, many since have utilized food as actual material, integrating all types of substances into the physical constitution of their work.
Some like Felix Gonzalez-Torres or Janine Antoni, have used food, hard candy and chocolate/fat respectively, to reflect not simply on consumption but also on notions of nourishment, rapaciousness, and replenishment, calling attention to the intimate connection between the human body and sustenance.
Others like Dieter Roth, have used organic materials to explore decay, allowing such items like chocolate and bananas to rot, mold, and disappear, bringing to mind perhaps the darker underbelly (sorry) of our relationship to food and its unavoidable connection to our own deteriorating bodies.
But what of those examples that blur categorical boundaries altogether, of the blatantly sculptural things that exist outside of the canon of art history or the vaulted halls of the museum? There is a whole subculture and outright profession of food sculpting.
Even removing the debatably related ice sculpting from the mix, practitioners of this art form masterfully transform butter, chocolate, cheese, and even submarine sandwiches into mesmerizing if not also somewhat terrifying (or at least odd) portraits and tableaux. Sarah Kaufmann, or “The Cheese Lady,” whose has become known for her large cheddar sculptures, provides a possible explanation of the appeal of sculpting with food. “It’s much more delightful that working with wood or stone. You can snack while you work.” This statement rivals Warhol in terms of sheer brilliance.
Or what about the amateur food sculptors out there—the three year olds molding mounds of mashed potatoes or perhaps my favorite recent phenomena: the “Snackadium.” These creative, if disgusting, odes to American gluttony and sport involve the architectural and sculptural construction of entire “stadiums” made of food, often meticulously detailed, down to broccoli crown landscaping and miniature candy-bar cars in licorice-strewn parking lots.
These examples might seem to be somewhat random examples of American eccentricism (though these are hardly limited to the States – see for example the rich tradition of Asian food carving or some more recent UK incarnations), but as William Deresiewicz wrote in 2012 New York Times OpEd piece, food seems to be taking over the role of high art in many societies.
Such a suggestion continues to be confirmed by the proliferation of so-called Modernist Cuisine exemplified by the work of chefs like Grant Achatz, the seemingly endless trends of carefully crafted baked goods (cupcakes, donuts, cronuts…), and the establishment and institutionalization of cuisine, through initiatives like Harvard’s “Science and Cooking.” Deresiewicz states,But what has happened is not that food has led to art, but that it has replaced it. Foodism has taken on the sociological characteristics of what used to be known — in the days of the rising postwar middle class, when Mortimer Adler was peddling the Great Books and Leonard Bernstein was on television — as culture. It is costly. It requires knowledge and connoisseurship, which are themselves costly to develop. It is a badge of membership in the higher classes, an ideal example of what Thorstein Veblen, the great social critic of the Gilded Age, called conspicuous consumption. It is a vehicle of status aspiration and competition, an ever-present occasion for snobbery, one-upmanship and social aggression. (My farmers’ market has bigger, better, fresher tomatoes than yours.) Nobody cares if you know about Mozart or Leonardo anymore, but you had better be able to discuss the difference between ganache and couverture.
I do not see, however, this needing to be an either/or situation, and while this post neither purports to be either comprehensive or even overly enlightening, I think the continuities highlighted between sculpture and food, the complex and wonderful ways in which one can inform the other, suggests both the elevation of food to art and the relevance of sculpture within our everyday lives. And if you now find yourself feeling inspired to create your own three-dimensional masterpiece but perhaps do not have access to a butter sculpting classes in your area or are not courageous enough to tackle the Snackadium, , I highly recommend Modern Art Desserts: Recipes for Cakes, Cookies, Confections, and Frozen Treats Based on Iconic Works of Art (Ten Speed Press, 2013)… or perhaps see if there is a butter sculpting class are your area agricultural fair?