The joke in painting classes is that if you can’t render the living, breathing dynamic human figure, try a still life. Get it? Still, not moving, not painting… oh never mind.
For painters in many cultures — China, Japan, but especially the European tradition — three basic options existed before abstraction blew the doors off everything: the human form (as above), the landscape, and the still life. All three, of course, can be mixed and matched in various combos, or interpreted through a hundred and one genres: historical, religious, romantic, and so on.
But to the still life we owe one of the most interesting subjects that we are obsessed with still: food. For food — and its consumption, with all its metaphoric, symbolic and cultural possibilities — is one of the most open-ended subjects an artist or an activist can turn her or his attention to.
Early still lifes often portrayed food in its various stages, along with accoutrements: dead pheasants or glassy-eyed fish about to become food; robust squashes, luscious grapes; copper pots, crystal glasses; neat tables of dark wood covered with white linens.
For the rising merchant class in Renaissance Europe attempting to secure its status — which the early art world quickly realized was a far more promising market than church or state — any image of anything to do with wealth and power, such as good food, was a good thing to hang on your wall, as Martha Stewart and other arbiters of good taste will attest to today.
Of course, for the often-poor artist food was usually, and cheaply, at hand and, as noted earlier, very handily still — bonus for the slow painter or drawer.
Then morality crept into still lifes, as it tends to do in real life. Vanitas paintings, which often portray a skull or some such direct reminder that no one gets out of here alive, would also sometimes portray more subtle subjects such as food, which also never gets out of here alive.
Decay, it seems, is here to stay, as is food in art.
The contemporary art scene is still awash in paintings and performances and installations and videos, all relating to food and the act of consuming it. Who could resist, with so many levels of meaning, from nourishment to consumption to obsession with eating, or not. Then there are the institutional aspects: the social conventions, the rituals, the impacts on culture and on politics.
Food is so wonderfully open as a vehicle, with the context depending entirely on your place in history, in culture and in class.