Life went bananas in 2020 for a whole bunch of reasons. Early pandemic days. Election politics. And art world controversy as a banana with duct tape shown during a prestigious art fair got donated to the Guggenheim Museum. With so much food for thought out there, it's a great time to bring some levity to your life with a fun mix of food and art. Metro Phoenix is filled with bars, coffee shops, and eateries showing work by local artists, but you can also take a deeper dive in Tucson with an exhibit called "The Art of Food," where everything from peanuts to meatballs gets the fine art treatment.
It's on view at The University of Arizona Museum of Art, where you can see Andy Warhol's renowned pop art featuring bananas and Campbell's soup cans, plus works by Wayne Thiebaud, an artist born in Mesa who died on Christmas Day 2021, leaving behind a legacy marked by paintings of ice cream cones and other everyday pleasures.
"We wanted to show artists that would help create a bridge to the community, so people could explore the art but also think about their own experiences with food," says Olivia Miller, who curated the show.
The lineup boasts work by more than three dozen artists, including Damien Hirst, David Hockney, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, and Ed Ruscha. You might not recognize all their names, but you've likely crossed paths with their iconic artworks, perhaps right here in Phoenix.
In 2018, for example, Phoenix Art Museum opened its "Rauschenberg and Johns: The Blurring of Art and Life" exhibit. In 2019, the Heard Museum opened "David Hockney's Yosemite and Masters of California Basketry."
There's a reason people are so fascinated by these artists' work, according to Lisa Sette, who owns Lisa Sette Gallery in midtown Phoenix. "They set the stage for what contemporary art is," she explains. "It's important to know that history and what artists today are building upon."
In some cases, Arizona artists have been significantly influenced by these artists' ideas, subject matter, choice of materials, or creative process.
Joe Ray, an artist whose paintings and prints exude bright colors and imagery reflecting his Mexican heritage, cites both Warhol and Hockney as important influences, especially when it comes to the way he uses color. Matt Magee, an artist whose works are filled with symbols and patterns, has a close connection to Rauschenberg's work, having spent nearly two decades as an archivist, preparator, and registrar at the artist's New York studio.
Ray spends a lot of time cooking, in addition to making art. For him, the common thread between art and food is their capacity to stimulate the senses. "When I look down at a plate full of food, I see a palette," he says. "When I look at something like Thiebaud's cake paintings, I can almost taste and feel the creaminess of it." Sometimes Ray sees a piece of art and wonders to himself about what the artist must have been eating or drinking at the time, knowing how much things like texture and smell can impact the creative process.
Julio César Morales, a Tempe-based artist and curator for the ASU Art Museum, has long been fascinated by food, in part because his grandfather passed down the story of helping to invent the Caesar salad with gangster Al Capone and a chef at a Tijuana hotel frequented by Hollywood stars during the 1920s. Working with collaborators including chef Max La Rivière-Hedrick, he's created live performance, film, and other works, in which preparing and sharing food becomes a vehicle for exploring history and storytelling.
"I look at art and food as using the same process," says Morales. "You have a recipe, or not, and you have ingredients the way an artist has materials. You have to think about how you construct it, and how you use it creatively."
But there's something else that food and art have in common, according to Morales. "They both start conversations, and they both take you back to certain places and times when you experienced them."
Several artists represented by Lisa Sette Gallery have found compelling ways to incorporate food into their work. For Rachel Bess, oil paintings of rotting fruit enveloped by darkness are tied to the slow decay and ultimate death of the human body. Meanwhile, Kim Cridler often includes fruit in her metal baskets of precious things.
"Food is life, you can't live without it," reflects Sette. "Artists want to paint what surrounds them."
Sette also represents Enrique Chagoya, a Mexican-American California-based artist whose works include a stack of 10 soup-style cans called Pyramid Scheme with green labels bearing names like Ponzi Chowder and Stimulus Minestrone. In the Tucson exhibit, you'll encounter Chagoya's The Enlightened Savage featuring a similar pyramid of cans with red labels for a fictional Cannibull's soup brand with flavors such as Curator's Liver and Critic's Tongue.
"The Art of Food" includes more than 100 works culled from the collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and his family foundation. Schnitzer heads Schnitzer Properties, a Portland-based firm whose Arizona holdings include the Scottsdale Airpark Commerce Center. He bought his first piece of art as a teenager and has since amassed a collection of over 19,000 works. According to Miller, who serves as the museum's curator of exhibitions, more than 500 of those artworks involve food.
"This is the museum's largest exhibition of the last decade, in terms of both the number of works and prominent artists featured, as well as the significance of the subject matter," explains Jill McCleary, deputy director, and acting head for the museum.
Exhibition highlights include lush paintings by Sherrie Wolf, whose exquisite fruits are often set in outdoor landscapes or coupled with wildlife and botanicals, and porcelain sculptures by Chris Antemann, who pairs bountiful food scenes with playful references to sexual desire.
"Food is complex," says Miller. "Not only is it a physical necessity, but it is also integral to our communities, relationships, cultures, and memories. It's a commodity, it's a livelihood, and it has ethical implications. This exhibition explores all of these facets of food and prompts us to consider our own relationships with it."
For Miller, this exhibition is a way to introduce people to art through a familiar topic. She organized the artwork around several themes, such as control, community, eye candy, food for thought, and elixirs and libations. Picture a watercolor bar scene painted by Warhol or a slice of wedding cake painted by Claes Oldenburg.
Amid all the whimsy, some works highlight serious issues.
Consider Lorna Simpson's C-Ration, a gelatin silver print addressing racial injustice. Or Jenny Holzer's Survival Series: If You're Considered Useless No One Will Feed You Anymore, a cast aluminum plaque with black paint made during the early years of Ronald Reagan's presidency, which features words pulled from its striking title. Phoenix-based artist Christopher Jagmin finds Holzer's work particularly powerful, in part because she uses bold text and graphic elements, but also because her work often challenges political propaganda.
Several artists, like Malia Jensen, imbue their work with humor. Jensen's Butterscape sculpture looks like a stick of butter carved to resemble a landscape, and her Untitled 4 (salt lick) features a women's breast carved from an actual salt lick. Screenprints from Damien Hirst's The Last Supper series present names of common foods like sausages and salad as pharmaceutical labels.
Clearly, artists have done some fascinating things with food through the years.
For a 1992 toned gelatin silver print titled Still Life, Marseilles, photographer Joel-Peter Witkin set a cadaver head next to a bountiful vessel filled with vegetables and fish. In 1931, Salvador Dalí painted his renowned Persistence of Memory with its melting clocks, but also made a sculpture called Retrospective Bust of a Woman, which sets a baguette atop his subject's head and lays corn cobs across her neck.
Here in Phoenix, you'll find numerous creative connections between art and food.
Most notable are the murals painted at Barrio Cafe, and the area dubbed Calle 16, where Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza worked with artists to launch an ongoing mural project more than a decade ago amid anti-immigration policies that included SB 1070. Today, you can also see rotating exhibits through the storefront windows of an adjacent gallery space called Frida's Garden and art filling the walls inside Barrio Cafe.
Esparza recalls going with her father as a child to see Diego Rivera's massive murals inside the National Palace in Mexico City, where imagery includes figures making corn for tortillas, enjoying art and music, and fighting for independence. "Art and food and spirits have an equal place in creative expression," says Esparza. "We're the children of the corn; Art helps us preserve and share that history."
More recently, the Xico Arte y Cultura gallery focused on Latino and Indigenous artists relocated to Roosevelt Row, where it shares a wide-open space with the Barcoa Agaveria owned by David Tyda and Ryan Oberholtzer. During First Friday, a taco vendor sets up outside the bar, where people who come to see art find their way to the food, and vice versa. But Tyda sees additional benefits, as well.
"While building out our space, I believe that being connected to Xico has helped Ryan and I make sure that our art choices are appropriate and intentional," he says. Local artists they show include Tato Caraveo, Janet Diaz, La Morena, and Spawk. "We are working on QR code stickers that appear next to pieces around Barcoa so people can learn more about what they're looking at, similar to a gallery walk-around."
Likewise, connections between art and food occur around downtown Tucson, where you'll find cafe walls dotted with local artworks, and murals painted on restaurant exteriors. At Cobra Arcade Bar on East Congress Street, for example, you'll spot a mural by El Mac, an internationally renowned artist based in Los Angeles who grew up in Phoenix, where more of his murals grace the urban landscape.
Showing food-related art in Tucson makes perfect sense, according to Miller, because The University of Arizona is home to a regional food center and owns the nearby Biosphere 2 facility in Oracle, where agriculture is a strong focus. In 2015, Tucson became the first U.S. city named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy.
"I hope people leave the exhibition feeling a greater appreciation for the value of art," says Miller. "But I also want them to leave asking more questions about where their food comes from and all the ways food impacts not just individuals but communities."
"The Art of Food: From the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation" continues through March 20, 2022, at The University of Arizona Museum of Art, 1031 North Olive Road, Tucson. Museum hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Museum admission is $8.