Feast for the Eyes

When funnel cakes and sausages threatened to take over Artscape, a group of artists fought back with Foodscape.

July 15, 2004|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

Stop by Mount Royal Tavern in Bolton Hill between now and July 30 and you can order a draft Guinness ($3), a 12-inch pizza ($4.99) ... and an original piece of minimalist art that might best be described as a tiny brick wall made from Domino sugar cubes (Richard Roth's How Sweet It Is, $950 framed).

It's Artscape time in Baltimore. Which means it's also time for that annual counter-programming, up-the-establishment exhibit known as Foodscape, now celebrating its 20th year at the Tavern. A record 22 works of food-themed art are on display, hanging in a row like bright-colored laundry on the brick wall opposite the bar.

"I've enjoyed this show so much over the years," says cab driver and Tavern fixture John Healy. Not only does the art keep getting better, says Healy, so do those spicy meatballs they serve every opening night.

Not into framed sugar cubes? How about more mainstream fruit? A watercolor of a mango can be had for just $75. If barbecue art is your thing, however, be prepared to plunk down $2,000 for that primitive-flavored painting of five bald guys eating stacks of ribs. Sorry, Breakfast House, a folk-art embellished bird feeder with a hard-boiled egg nestled inside where the sparrow should be, already sold for $450.

"The thing about the show is that 20 years ago it was satirical," says Ron Russell, 57, one of Foodscape's founding artists. "Now it's institutionalized."

When Artscape was born in 1982, some local artists noticed that funnel cakes and grilled sausage were more in evidence than actual art. Furthermore, the art that was featured tended to be imported.

"I don't see any Maryland artists and you've got them living within five miles of here," Kelly Lane, creator of Breakfast House, recalls thinking at the time.

By Year 3 of Artscape, Lane had had enough. She rounded up about 10 disgruntled fellow artists and they launched their own cultural revolution: a tongue-in-cheek satellite art exhibit devoted to food. Some of those conspirators were Maryland Institute College of Art alumni, like Lane, who were then earning post-graduate degrees in beer drinking at the Tavern, which, coincidentally, had this big, blank brick wall in need of a little color.

Many things have changed in the past 20 years. For one, Foodscape's reputation and following have grown. Being located just steps away from hundreds of thousands of thirsty Artscape spectators certainly doesn't hurt the show's walk-in traffic.

"It'll get a lot of exposure all through the weekend," says Chris Kozak, co-owner of Mount Royal Tavern and himself a MICA graduate. "Some people do actually look at the walls when they come in here."

Perhaps the most dramatic shift over time has been Artscape's mission. Funnel cake now takes a back seat to arts and music promotion. In fact, this weekend, some Foodscape artists will be participating in the very event they once lampooned. For example, works of photographer Jim Burger can be seen at both Foodscape and Artscape venues. Same for Russell.

Back in 1984, Russell's first Foodscape submission was a painting of a baseball player titled Onion Picker, old-time sports jargon for a sticky-gloved fielder. He got surprisingly caught up in that project and since then has turned out a series of paintings based on baseball-slang expressions, among them Ball Park Hot Dog and Fork Ball.

Unfortunately, one thing that hasn't changed in the past 20 years is the artistic life. It's as rough a road as ever. Thus, Russell earns his primary living painting houses and dormitory rooms at MICA, his alma mater. Those later works will be on public display until they peel.

Somehow Mount Royal Tavern has managed to withstand the test of time. It still attracts an oddball mixture of low-down and high-brow customers. "Some people have said Baltimore is tilted and everything that's here rolls down to the Mount Royal Tavern," observes Burger. "If you want to talk about art, this is the place to come."

A small lunchtime crowd was talking Foodscape art the other day. Bartender Carol Newton and a few regulars were contemplating Ted Young's whimsical painting Chip Lust, in which the Utz potato chip girl is pictured daydreaming with lascivious intent about the one-eyed, handlebar-mustached mascot of National Bohemian beer. They weren't discussing aesthetics, but rather what the offspring of such an odd couple would look like.

Meanwhile, Dale Davis was busy eyeing Mark Adams' still-life rendering of a plateful of oysters. Oysters on the half shell are tricky to paint, Davis says. He admires Adams' delicate composition and "the way the lemons pop out."

Bushy-bearded, soft-spoken Jim Hennessey sat by himself at the far end of the bar, offering the wide-angle perspective of both space and time. He retired two years ago after teaching art at MICA for 37 years. Burger and Russell and many of their friends are former students of Hennessey's.

"The nice thing about Foodscape," he says, "is it's an authentic outpouring of the mutual feeling between the bar and these artists."

Hennessey's retired but still a good teacher. He knows the most intriguing, if not priceless, piece of Foodscape art isn't hanging on the wall.

Foodscape continues at the Mount Royal Tavern, 1204 Mount Royal Ave., through July 31. Full Artscape coverage is in today's LIVE! section.

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