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TOO PRETTY TO EAT BY NICOLE WOON PHOTOS BY NICOLE WOON

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The dazzling “food porn” that we lap up in droves may be called nature morte in French, but still lifes are anything but dead. While food photography is in vogue these days, food art got its start in paintings. Depictions of food first appeared inside ancient Egyptian tombs, thought to become available for use in the afterlife. The art form has evolved significantly over time, from allegory-rich portraits of sumptuous Renaissance feasts to happy-go-lucky 1950’s pop art of pastel seven-layer cakes and neon tomato soup cans. Judith Barter, curator of The Art Institute of Chicago’s “Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine” exhibit, argues that American still lifes are more than just pretty pictures. The artwork shows “what was valued in their own culture, what these pictures meant at the time they were painted to a contemporary audience and what foods people enjoyed – what life was like.” Profound insights need not be extracted from every brushstroke, however. Philadelphia-based artist Mike Geno, who brings seductive strips of bacon and shimmering pieces of sushi to life, says it “isn’t necessary to over-think the subject to justify it through concept. My approach comes from a very genuine, personal perspective, and my goal is to produce art that people can enjoy for various reasons on various levels.” Geno began painting food in 2001 as the last component for his Master of Fine Arts thesis show. Drawing on his college experiences working in meat rooms, he created a large painting of a raw Porterhouse steak as a joke and was surprised at the overwhelmingly positive response. “Vegetarian friends surprised me the most,” he mused. “They were repulsed by the subject, but attracted to how I did the painting.” Geno never expected to complete another piece like that – “it felt natural, but it was socially unacceptable in the art world then” – but realized over time that the more he connected to his subjects, the more he enjoyed the process. His cheese series exemplifies his style. After splurging on a rugged slab of Gorwydd Caerphilly thanks to a Di Bruno Brothers’ gift certificate, he felt galvanized to put paintbrush to canvas when he became hungry just looking at the layered wedge with its earthy rind, creamy breakdown, and lemony crumbly center. Today, over 120 different varieties make up this collection, which explores fromage like gooey smear-ripened Taleggio, craggy Parmesan Reggiano, and shockingly orange Shropshire Blue. The art is his “homage to other artists: the cheesemakers. They are artisans. They think about the way it looks, the packaging, the texture.” As one critic commented on Geno’s work, “There’s something about his paintings that transcends the image – you’re looking at the soul of the cheese rather than a picture.” Geno has gone on to collaborate with

spring 2014

Philadelphia’s culinary staples. His “Rittenhouse Square Meal” gallery show this past winter spotlighted bites from Di Bruno’s, Metropolitan Bakery, and Zama, and his “Chef Plates” collection, celebrating picturesque dishes like Zahav’s Hummus-Masbacha and The Farm and Fisherman’s Bloody Beet Steak, is displayed at the James Beard House this spring. While he may not be chaining his paintings to historical content, Geno provides viewers with vivid accompanying text that gives context for the experience. That Sottocenere you lust over, for instance, is “deliciously subtle and yet indulgent, a typical truffle effect… made with raw cow's milk and aged about 100 days, Sottocenere is studded with bits of black truffle and rubbed externally with truffle oil and the gray ash coating in the rind includes nutmeg, cloves, coriander, cinnamon, licorice, and fennel.” In the same way that 17thcentury Europeans understood the symbolism in Dutch vanitas, present-day Americans speak food lingo just as fluently. Our culture’s deeper appreciation for food enables 21st-century artists to find relevance in a long-lost genre. The next great subject of American art brings new meaning to the phrase “too pretty to eat.”

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Spring 2014  
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