We may need to eat to live, but food is rarely just fuel: it’s ritual, it’s celebration, it’s sex; a signifier of good or bad taste, status or aspiration, individual or national identity. This juicy new exhibition is alive to all of that, and draws images from fine art, advertising, magazines, and – hurrah! – all those lurid retro recipes that suggest vegetables are best served via jelly moulds. Chilled celery log or jellied tomato ‘refresher’, anyone?
The show starts by looking at how photographers have reacted to the traditional painted still life, from early prints that showed off photography’s ability to capture every bloom of a grape, to all sorts of droll deconstructions. Irving Penn’s photograph of blocks of frozen fruit and veg is surreal in pastel, as is Holgar Niehaus’s traditional composition, made newly pale and exposed by her peeling the fruit. Rot creeps uneasily in in Sharon Core’s apples, and in Paul Outerbridge’s bruised avocados.
Photographers use food as a shorthand for national character – Martin Parr homing in on baked beans in Bristol, Weegee capturing a soldier tucking into a last plate of spaghetti in a New York diner – as well as all sorts of psycho-sexual dramas and even self-loathing. Guy Bourdin’s glossy image of women cavorting with frankfurters is all-out innuendo, but Cindy Sherman’s messed up beach scene, replete with destroyed cake fragments and piles of vomit, reminds you of the darker relationships women, especially, can have with compulsive consumption.
But mostly this is a sugar rush of a show, its excesses bright and bold. It’s often grotesque, but more often gleeful. Artists have used photography to subvert the many meanings food can contain – but there’s also all the messy fun of a good food fight in this show, which celebrates the gaudy and greedy too. Whether its Joseph Maida’s surreal, candy-coloured compositions or Robert Doisneau’s portrait of Picasso with bread rolls for hands, ‘Feast for the Eyes’ proves it’s fun to play with your food.