For the spring exhibition at GreenHill, curator Edie Carpenter has chosen a thematically light topic that tends to be calorically heavy, namely “Sweets,” as the show is concisely titled.
Food is a timeless subject in art and a relatable theme across generations, cultural barriers, and even this country’s vast political divide. Moreover, virtually everyone has something of a sweet tooth, so this particular category of foods arguably merits special attention.
Lending a topical element to what might otherwise be a relatively inconsequential show, Carpenter has broadened and complicated the theme by including processed foods within exhibition’s purview.
The most familiar, traditional approach to presenting sweets and other food items in art is through still-life painting. This approach has never lacked for exponents, and the two still-life painters represented here have clearly spent plenty of time contemplating — if not consuming — dessert foods.
Rachel Campbell’s paintings are loosely illustrative, celebrating their subjects instead of emphasizing technique or composition. As paintings they’re straightforward and rather ordinary, employing conventional still-life compositional modes to highlight the sweet treats that are their primary but not exclusive subjects.
Straightforward still-life paintings of flowers in vases are a dime a dozen. Campbell’s variation on this timeless subject stands out because the vase and its floral contents are visually upstaged by an unopened box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. The latter image invites a Pavlovian response from dedicated consumers of this familiar, sugar-saturated product. Many other works in the show are also likely to have special appeal for viewers’ appetites as well as their visual sensibilities.
The show’s other still-life painter, Bethany Pierce, takes a sensual approach to the painting process itself, manipulating paint as if it were pudding, cake icing or melting ice cream being pushed around with a spoon. She works from real dessert foods under carefully studio lighting, but some aspects of the process are out of her control.
“Beneath the spotlights, they spill and slip and lean,” she has written, “forcing me to work with equal parts spontaneity and deliberation. Inevitably my perfectly composed still life arrangements fall apart. The ice cream melts, the donuts mold, the cakes calcify.”
In addition to her paintings on canvas, Pierce is showing several pieces that replicate frosting-decorated cakes mounted on the wall as enticingly colored reliefs.
Robin Frohardt creates the sculptural equivalent of still-life compositions that initially appear to be composed entirely of cakes, pies, cookies, and other popular dessert foods. Closer inspection reveals that they’re not made from traditional dessert ingredients and in fact aren’t edible at all, because they’re made entirely of mass-produced plastic packaging.
In an era when the deleterious environmental impact of such materials has reached a crisis point, the message could hardly be clearer. Whether we’re aware of it or not, most of us are literally eating and drinking plastic every day in gradually increasing amounts. Frohardt raises the same issue with special emphasis on the commercial food-products industry in her series of ersatz breakfast-cereal boxes.
Using cute cartoon characters and blow-up lettering, the boxes are seemingly designed to entice young consumers into sampling products like “Yucky Shards.” In this series she parodies the marketing of sugar-laden foods to children while also referencing the presence of plastic in packaged-food products.
The packaging of candy products exerts a special fascination for Paul Rousso. His large wall reliefs are composed of enlarged and manipulated replicas of brand-name candy wrappers fabricated from colored Plexiglass. Rousso has developed his own high-tech process for creating such works, in which commercially printed, two-dimensional papers — including currency and magazine pages — are copied, enlarged and crumpled to make them three-dimensional.
One or more such objects appear in each of his wall-mounted pieces, which resemble pop-art relief paintings. They’re striking pieces that simultaneously celebrate and critique commerce, mass-production and consumer culture.
Mass-produced sweet treats with familiar packaging also figure prominently in Stacy Crabill’s humorously nostalgic, collage-format paintings. Populated with figures from old snapshot photos, Crabill’s works also incorporate images of unwrapped candies and cookie fortunes. They’re chromatically reminiscent of old-fashioned, hand-colored photographs that have faded with time.
Color is also a key element in the work of Kristine Baumlier-Faber, whose contributions to the show include circular-format photographs and big bowls of processed-food products. Her enlarged, extreme close-up photos of French fries, Mountain Dew, a frosted doughnut and other popular foods read as abstract compositions.
Arrayed in front of these wall-mounted pieces are three pedestals on which Baumlier-Faber has placed large, clear-plastic bowls full of cheese puffs, Doritos and Tang respectively. In this context they read as sculptural objects — don’t eat the art — and they highlight the extent to which color influences our perception of and desire for certain foods and beverages.
Jillian Ohl has also incorporated bowls of processed food products in her work — in her case sugary breakfast cereals — and juxtaposed them with two-dimensional compositions. Each of her mixed-media drawings is a relatively realistic counterpart of a cartoon character used to advertise the particular brand of cereal with which it is paired. For example, a bowl of Count Chocula cereal occupies a small shelf in front of Ohl’s drawing of a dark-haired man wearing a cape, clearly referencing Bram Stoker’s popular vampire character, Dracula, whose name, of course, inspired the chocolate-flavored cereal.
Ohl’s concept is less interesting than the drawings on their own terms.
Rounding out the show are Ed Bing Lee’s woven and knotted fiber sculptures of dessert foods including cupcakes, scoops of ice cream and slices of pie. From a little distance they’re convincing replicas, but a closer look reveals their true composition and intricate, handmade qualities. Several of Lee’s pieces incorporate U.S. flag motifs, and a miniature teddy bear surmounts his “Trophy Cake” slice.