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Baltimore artists blur the lines between the culinary and visual arts

Baltimore artists blur the lines between the culinary and visual arts
Rosemary Liss produced "Kraut Quilts," a series of cotton quilts printed with digitally manipulated iPhone images of her kraut. (Rosemary Liss)

At Terrault Contemporary's "Salon Show" in October, a group of people stood around a beautiful, and delicious, display. This was not your ordinary gallery fare—deep-fried crickets, beets, sweet potatoes, and guacamole—and it didn't directly pertain to the art hanging on the walls.

The people hovering greedily around the food cart, dipping and stabbing for tastes, probably considered the aesthetics of the display simply because they had arrived at the gallery in an art-viewing state of mind. The experience of eating differs depending on where you find yourself shoveling food into your mouth, just as a painting hung in a restaurant won't be seen in the same way it would in a gallery.

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The food on the cart was prepared and arranged by Sin Yi "Cherry" Lau, who is only one of a slew of young local artists who have been blurring the line between fine and culinary art.

Lau is the founder of Studio Snacks, a food blog that stemmed from a considerable amount of Lau's own research on "plant-based and vegetable-forward meals." With her partner Kaita Niwa, Lau plans to co-run an expanded version of the blog beginning in early 2015. Studio Snacks, which provides solemnly grain-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, locally sourced food, functions primarily online where Lau posts toothsome images of her artfully prepared dishes and links them to recipes. Among other items, we are talking fried plantain brownies, ginger scallion rabbit legs, homemade ketchup, blueberry steak salad. Lau gets as many of her ingredients as possible from Baltimore farmers markets and urban farms such as Hidden Harvest in Station North.

Lau began sculpting in a more traditional sense when she was in high school, using food as a medium for its aesthetic quality, not nutritional value. Her old art Tumblr is a testament to Studio Snacks' art-sensitive beginnings. There's a series of scanned cross sections of black and white marble cake. Another of her earlier photo/sculptures depicts a mouthwatering stack of pancakes dripping with syrup sitting on a mirrored table. Holding a square of butter, a human hand, suspended above the pancakes, protrudes from a bunch of kale. In these early pieces, the food was not made to be eaten and the sculptures were made to be photographed, not to last. Like Alison Knowles's iconic "Make a Salad," Lau's cooking acts are performance art as much as they are sculpture. The physical assemblage of food is a creative act that evokes international conventions of women designing cuisine, whether around a fire or in the kitchen. "I see a lot of acts that aren't necessarily taught at art school to be artistic acts," says Lau. "I believe there is a huge blur between art and life. My cooking is always an art form for me."

Still, her artful displays are curated food assemblages. She hopes the combinations of foods, the ingredients themselves, the food source, and the careful display will interact in such a way that they communicate a theme or feeling, such as variety, seasonality, or comfort. "When someone approaches [the food] in the three seconds that they interact with it, [I hope] that they will understand the main part of it."

But of course, food art (that is, art that has anything to do with food) is nothing new. Consider cattle hunts depicted in prehistoric cave paintings and early modern still lifes of fish and grapes on a platter. Still, what we have deemed contemporary food art began in the 1930s with Futurist F.T. Marinetti's iconic Italian menus at Taverna Santopalato, where diners were given swathes of sandpaper to stroke as they consumed outrageous, sensuous dishes. Beginning in the 1970s, a noteworthy wave of feminist artists began to absorb food and cooking processes into art performances, conjuring a collective domestic experience for women, i.e. Martha Rosler's 'Semiotics of the Kitchen' (1975) and Judy Chicago's 'The Dinner Party' (1974-1979).

And in Baltimore, an increasing number of artists are focusing their work on food. Annex Theater's production of "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover" was not only about food, but it took place at Canteen, where chef Dane Nester had prepared a four-course meal that went with the play. Current Space hosted a live goat at the opening of "Of screens, remainders, and holds; with an eye towards separation, nose for the drift," and served goat stew at the closing. And Dominic Terlizzi makes use of the form and symmetry of familiar manufactured crackers such as Ritz, Cheez-Its, Premiums, etc. to assemble geometric mosaics on canvas. And, while Rosemary Liss' artwork is not even remotely edible, her ideas, like Lau's, derive from the motions of everyday life.

For Liss, experimenting with food as a medium is a natural reflection of her multiple environments: in relationships, online, in the kitchen, at work. She works at Hex Ferments in Belvedere Square, selling specialty sauerkrauts, kimchi, and kombucha. Her work locates a smart equilibrium between all of these things. "Who you are, is what you eat, is how you think about who you are," she says.

Inspired by the process of fermentation for both health and bite, Liss produced "Kraut Quilts," a series of cotton quilts printed with digitally manipulated iPhone images of her kraut. The result involves a nearly psychedelic variety of color and a smart context shift for traditional, feminine craft: food, quilt, and embroidery steamrolled by technology.

Liss currently has a show of paintings called "Culture vs. Culture" on display at Pen & Quill.  The paintings make use of house paint, oil, jaquard silk dye, fabric, painters' tape, plaster, and kombucha vinegar. "The title plays with the idea of cultured foods and culture—the human act of creating and preserving," she says.

In Liss' view the kombucha culture cultivates the other materials, like it cultivates bacteria in the fermentation process. The result is a palette of pastel nebulosity and central splatters of plaster; diverse textures rise thickly from the canvas. Small geometric cuts of gauzy fabric offset the overall dreamy abstraction. The acidic quality of the kombucha vinegar cracks the surface of the paint when it dries, making the surface look a little older than it really is, again evoking the past.

Liss has since pulled a 180, printing images of these same paintings on white fabric, editing in white frames on all four sides of the print. The whiteness is very deliberate; Liss wanted to process these paintings and exhibit them in a way that analogous the way we often digest contemporary art today: the internet, and most notably Instagram. By exhibiting images of the original painting, Liss is simulating the experience of looking at art online. When she shows this work at Terrault in the coming year, two wooden poles cemented into cement cylinders will hoist the sheets of fabric up like flags.

But don't expect the kind of spread Lau brought to Terrault. When Liss recently attempted to mix kombucha and champagne, her friends held their noses and declined. But even if this kind of concoction works better on canvas, or quilt, than on the tongue, it is still evidence of Liss' ability to bring together  elements, textures, and concepts that do not usually share space.

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