On the absence of food in art

Just recently, the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago opened their exhibit called Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art. This exhibit represents the first comprehensive take on the art of sharing food (as subject, as material, and as performance) in art. Feast opened to a packed house on February 15. The show itself is progressive, well considered, and, I would argue, overdue.

The exhibit introduces viewers to the multitude of ways that artists have included sharing food through time, but it is missing something.

It does not touch the greater cannon of art in history. More specifically, the show selects-out artists who use food, but ignores the fact that there when you walk around an arts museum, the majority of the work will not deal with the reality of food at all. In fact, many pieces in which one would expect to find food, do not portray food at all.*

To illustrate this point, let’s take one of the most famous works from the Art Institute of Chicago:

Grant Wood’s American Gothic. This piece is all about the farmer and his daughter, but the absence of food is conspicuous. The farmer grows food for a living, so where is it?

So, fine. Living as a farmer is tough and perhaps the absence of food shows the fact that taking care of the land has become less and less profitable for a living.  But why does the farmer look so much like Michael Pollan?

More importantly, what about this painting is so classic? Is the absence food in art a prerequisite for a classic piece?

I have covered a similar take on this already in my post “a new view through food,” as well.

And so we come back to Feast. Chicago-based Photographer Laura Letinsky’s work is threaded through the exhibit space at Feast. Her work Rome (2009) is the frontispiece of the show. In fact, the gallery visitor may encounter her work straight ahead—before looking left to see the exhibit’s introductory text. The choice to use Letinsky as a repetitive element is curious to me, as her work shows only the “result” of a meal. It alludes to a meal or party that has passed, but does not show the act of eating or interaction with the food. This absence in Letinsky’s work echoes the Grant Wood piece cited above at the Art Institute of Chicago.

*Note : I am excluding still life painting from this discussion. Next time you go to an art museum,try to find works that deal directly with food and report back to me. I’d love to hear about what you see.


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