11.29.18 Press

Dana Sherwood in The New York Times Style Magazine

IN THE PHOTOGRAPH, 16 raw yolks sit in a plastic ice-cube tray, each compartment brimming with albumen. Around the tray lie broken eggshells, cast off on a dimensionless blue surface. As a composition, it’s simple and striking, with saturated Jolly Rancher colors, the kind of image that pops on Instagram. But it doesn’t tell the story we’ve come to expect from food photographs that dominate social media: There’s no teasing promise of deliciousness or even edibility. The yolks are sunshine-yellow yet eerily rectangular, filling their ice-cube cells, which reflect the dimensions of the photograph itself. Nature has given way to artifice; shell has been separated from yolk, form from content, food from function. There’s nothing to eat here.

What’s different for the artists emerging today is that their work is born out of, and must on some level contend with, a culture that has turned food into fetish. In the disembodied world of social media, food is appreciated as an almost exclusively visual medium, enshrined in hyper-processed, highly mannered photos without true corollaries in the physical world. It exists in a kind of suspended state of imagined deliciousness, never to be actually tasted by most viewers: a totem of eternally unconsummated desire. This is a perspective of extraordinary privilege, to be so secure in our food supply that we see food not as a requirement for biological survival but as entertainment — encouraging a strain of frivolity of which Keefe and Ma are wary. (According to a United Nations report, an estimated 821 million people around the world suffered from undernourishment last year.)

LONG BEFORE IT became a source of irony, food was a figurative object in still lifes, which were never so popular as in Europe’s Low Countries in the early modern age. Critics initially disdained the genre as merely decorative, lacking the moral heft of narrative art. But food has always had a story: It is ephemeral — destined to be consumed or spoiled — and thus, in a subgenre of still lifes called vanitas, a reminder of mortality. And food has cultural freight, helping to define social strata. As Amsterdam prospered from trade in the first half of the 17th century, Dutch still lifes morphed into luxurious mise-en-scènes featuring lemons from the Mediterranean and mince pies suffused with Indian spices. These were as meticulously staged as today’s Instagram posts, forgoing realism to make a statement about the increasingly rich, bourgeois merchants who had commissioned them.

That idea — food as a signifier of status and wealth — still holds today. In “Palate” (2012), the Greek-born American artist Gina Beavers transforms snapshots of food found online — glistening oysters, a pileup of chicken and waffles — into relief paintings with messy surfaces of smacked-around acrylic paint, thickened and contoured by pumice and glass beads. The resulting image-objects are stylized to the opposite extreme of glossy social media, overaccentuating the pockmarks, ooze and fleshiness of reality. In 2015, the Canadian artist Chloe Wise slapped Chanel and Prada logos on purses made out of what looked like bagels, challah and jam-smeared toast. Like the designer accessories they parodied, they too became coveted commodities — although the fact that the “bread” was molded out of urethane, not dough, took away some of the fun.

Food is, fundamentally, a necessity, and feeding others is a social compact: The 41-year-old American artist Dana Sherwood has been exploring these ideas since 2010 by baking elaborate layer cakes for animals. Her subjects include mice eating their way out of an elaborate pastry replica of the New York Stock Exchange and raccoons, possums and stray cats happening upon a table set at night in a Florida backyard, their feral devourings captured on video by infrared cameras. Her basic recipe comes from a 1970s cookbook, incorporating ingredients traditional to animal diets — seeds, grapes, chicken hearts — although she finds that her diners often prefer frosting. (“No one’s ever eaten the kale,” she says.) The work relies on the animals’ unpredictability — “I found that it got better when I stopped trying to control the outcome,” she adds — and natural instinct: They eat the food not because it’s pretty but because they’re hungry.

And with hunger comes fulfillment, food restored to its natural function. After Sherwood’s nocturnal feasts, there’s no waste. In the morning, the tablecloth is stiff with sugar, and birds fly down to peck the crumbs.

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