Food has long played a role in Western art. Consider Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s 16th-century portraits whose facial features are composed of fruits and vegetables or Paul Cezanne’s hundreds of post-Impressionist still life paintings of oranges and apples. This obsession is not surprising since most of us spend a good part of our daily lives planning our next meal.
Add to this long tradition of food-inspired art the cut-out paintings of Kentucky-based artist Lori Larusso now on view at the 701 Center for Contemporary Art in Columbia. Titled “Feast and Foe,” the exhibition is composed of approximately 100 acrylic paintings on polymetal, plexiglass or wooden panels, all of which have something to do with how food is “produced, packaged, prepared, presented and consumed.”
In scanning the gallery, I could not help but conjure up the following pop art recipe. Begin with an illustrative foundation inspired by Andy Warhol, add a layer of pastel whimsey rooted in the work of Wayne Thiebaud and sprinkle on top a liberal dusting of social commentary. What you get are the colorful installations of Lori Larusso.
Everyone is familiar with Warhol’s soup cans from the early 1960s – he liked soup and is said to have ingested soup for lunch nearly every day – and Thiebaud’s painted likenesses of cakes and pies, conjured from memories of gazing longingly at bakery display cases full of desserts. Larusso has taken similar images of commercial packaging and food products and added her own twist.
For one, she has liberated her paintings from the picture frame by cutting out their outlines and then juxtaposing these individual metal and plexiglass panels on the wall to form assemblages. Take, for example, “Menagerie of the Inedible, IV,” which features a container of Cool Whip, a partially eaten baloney sandwich, a clot of cream cheese mints in the seductive shape of roses and leaves, and a stack of three Tupperware containers. Mounted on the wall so that they project slightly from the surface, the separate pieces cast shadows that give each a 3D quality that add to their seductive appeal.
Beyond her technical experimentation, however, lies Larusso’s use of food as social metaphor. Whereas pop artists like Warhol and Thiebaud were drawn to food products and packaging mostly for their graphic appeal, Larusso spices her work with social commentary. “Menagerie of the Inedible, IV,” for example, aptly underscores the exhibition’s “Feast and Foe” title since the featured items pose a threat to our general health. However tasty they may be, Cool Whip is loaded with chemicals and additives; baloney is usually made from meat trimmings; cream cheese mints are composed largely of butter and sugar.
Furthermore, the stack of Tupperware containers with their starburst tops and multi-color allure – yellow on top, purple in the middle and brown on the bottom – makes a statement about the prevalence of leftovers in our culture. How many refrigerators across the land are full of food stored away for later consumption, food that may likely be forgotten and thrown out at a later date?
Featured in a number of Larusso’s installations are also plastic bags emblazoned with the proverbial happy face or script spelling out “Have a Nice Day” or “Thank You.” One cannot help but think of the oversized portions served in many American restaurants, portions that the average person could never consume in one sitting and are therefore impelled to take home in containers that often end up as deadly waste in landfills.
Visitors to the CCA will enjoy contemplating how Larusso’s colorful works offer commentary on a host of shifting social attitudes, including the topic of gender roles. Take, for example, “His and Hers,” two acrylic and enamel pieces on wooden panels that overturn expectations regarding masculinity and femininity. The featured cup and saucer in “Fancy Femme Coffee (blue)” may, at first glance, read like the end product of some inattentive male’s haphazard coffee making with its plain white porcelain set and its spoon left inside the bowl; but the lipstick mark on the cup rim belies such an assumption.
On display until the end of February, Lori Larusso’s colorful food-related paintings offer considerable visual appeal and much food for thought.