Foodscape Provides Another Interpretation Of The Culinary Arts

July 15, 2009|By ROB KASPER

J. Kelly Lane, a Baltimore artist, got a jolt of inspiration recently while walking down the produce aisle of the grocery store.

Lane, a painter, was having trouble conjuring up an idea for her next piece. "I was coming up empty," she said." Then I was in the grocery store, Shopper's, and they put out these most beautiful artichokes. And I said, 'That's it!' " Lane told me.

She bought an artichoke, took it home and worked its image into a painting called Flag of Artichokia. The work, she said, "has stars, stripes and artichokes."

Once the painting stopped, the cooking started.

Lane steamed the artichoke and served it with butter and garlic.

"We are talking starving artist here," Lane said.

This is but one example of what happens when you put Baltimore artists in the vicinity of food. Lane's tribute to artichokes and other examples of food-related artwork are on display this week at the Mount Royal Tavern, the formerly smoky hangout that sits on the 1200 block of Mount Royal Ave, smack dab in the middle of Artscape. The weeklong exhibit is known as Foodscape.

Artscape, the city's huge, free, three-day celebration of artistic impulses, especially those involving bands, has been around now for 28 years. It goes on this weekend. Foodscape has been around almost that long. It began as a parody, mocking the lack of local art and the predominance of fried food in Artscape's early years. Now, Foodscape has matured. This week it marks its 25th year. It has become, if not a mainstream event, at least a traditional part of the Artscape festivities.

One of the reasons Foodscape has thrived is its theme. Food has long been a rich source of artistic exploration.

"Food and art have gone together for ages," said Ron Russell, a painter and one of the original instigators of Foodscape."When the cavemen painted the walls, they painted the stuff they were hunting, their food."

Moreover, he said, food is a topic that draws an audience. "People can relate to it. Who doesn't eat?" Russell asked. "And who doesn't appreciate a still life, the beauty of a well-painted apple?"

I have been to several Foodscapes over the past 25 years, and I don't recall ever seeing a still life of a painted apple. Instead, most of the artists take food art in interesting and quirky directions.

Russell's paintings and prints for example, deal with the interplay of food terms and baseball lingo. One of his paintings is of a can of corn, which references the baseball term for an easily caught pop fly. The "can of corn" phrase springs from the practice of old-time grocers storing canned goods on the top shelf and easing them down from the perch as they fill customer orders.

"My grandfather had a store like that on the Shore, outside Berlin," Russell said. "He caught a can of corn as it came down from the top shelf."

This year Russell seized on the term "forkball" for his painting. This is a pitch that gets its name from the fact that the pitcher splays the baseball between his fingers, like meat between the tines of a fork..

Being free spirits, Foodscape artists have somehow been able to work nudity into their food-themed pieces.

A few years ago, photographer Jim Burger, a former colleague of mine at The Sun, hung a photograph in Foodscape called The Horrible Truth About Ronald McDonald. It showed a nude woman, with her face made up like the clown and wearing a red wig, eating a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

"I sold that piece to a lawyer, a guy in a gray suit," Burger told me. "You never know who is going to buy your work."

Some of the artists take a liberal approach to the show's food theme. Matt Bovie, for instance, describes his work as depicting "surreal consumption." One collage showed a man as a mongoose circling a woman with snakes coming out of her mouth. "It is about longing and consumption," Bovie said, "forms eating forms."

All the artists I spoke with told me that food-themed art sells relatively well.

But Lane cautioned that any old food-themed artwork is not an automatic sale. "It depends on the piece," Lane said, "on how good a job I have done." But generally speaking, audiences are warm to food-themed art, she said.

Setting Foodscape in the Mount Royal Tavern helps sales, the artists said. The tavern is an air-conditioned refuge, they noted, especially when the July heat is ungodly, as it was during last year's Artscape.

The tavern serves alcohol, and alcohol as Lane said, "loosens up the wallets" of would-be buyers.

"It is the coolest spot in Artscape," Bovie said, "and it has the cheapest beer."

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