'Art and Appetite' underscores a shift in fine dining

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In 1966, Claes Oldenburg created the perfect 2013 comfort meal. Chances are, this was not his intention. He made a 10-foot-wide fried egg. It occupies the last gallery of “Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture and Cuisine,” the sprawling, already popular new show of food-inspired paintings, illustrations and sculptures at the Art Institute of Chicago. As associate curator Sarah Kelly Oehler notes in the catalog, the fried egg is “a rough canvas material that disavows any sense of exacting hyper-realism.”

Hmm. Perhaps.

It also looks really good.

She goes on to explain, about Oldenburg's other excursions into large, soft comfort foods — a 10-foot-long ice cream cone, a flaccid, 7-foot-wide hamburger — that the artist was announcing “the overwhelming significance of processed comestibles and fast food in American culture.” He was alluding, “with a wink, to the suggestion that everyday American life was an artistic happening.”

And yet, that egg …

Maybe it's me, but after two hours of “Art and Appetite,” my hunger stoked, my feet hurting, it took everything I had not to climb onto the egg's pedestal and plop down into its large soft yolk.

It looked so …

Comforting.

Whether intended to be comic or a commentary on a superficial, willfully disposable culture, this large fake egg (“reminiscent of diner meals and bachelor cooking,” Oehler writes) looks merely delicious in 2013.

Perhaps because, like the show itself — which features 200 years of images, juxtaposing how we think we should eat and how we actually eat — it arrives at a moment when the future of dining seems more casual than ever: Charlie Trotter, who put Chicago fine dining on the national culinary map, just died. And before “Art and Appetite” closes Jan. 27, both Graham Elliott's eponymous River North restaurant and Courtright's in Willow Springs, a fine dining staple of the western suburbs, will be no more.

Sure, the Michelin Guide recently awarded 25 Chicago restaurants at least one star — the esteemed, internationally recognized promise of an elegant, white tablecloth-style dining establishment.

And yet, remarkable as these restaurants are (and I have eaten at many of them), their formality and austerity have rarely felt as detached from the Way We Live Now.

Which is nothing new.

In fact, if “Art and Appetite” says anything — and really, it's more history lesson than art show — it's that those feelings of not wanting to sit for long, soberly structured meals are deeply American and have been swirling around the United States for as long as restaurants have existed.

In recent years — accelerated by the 2008 financial collapse, and the overall sense of impending doom and insecurity many Americans have felt ever since — high-end culinary trends have pushed toward casual and cozy, the meeting of classically inspired, inventive cooking and commonplace comfort dishes. Hence, the rise of the $25 burger, the $35 pizza and the celebrated chef who would rather launch a taco joint in 2013 than cook a seven-course tasting menu for captains of industry.

The American fine-dining establishment, as we know it, did not arrive until after the Civil War. But as early as 1905, when realist William Glackens painted “At Mouquin's” (which is in the show), even the rich and bored seemed depressed by the rigidity of fine dining: Glackens shows Madame Mouquin, namesake owner of New York's Mouquin's, at a white-clothed table, dressed in a blue dress and floral hat, supremely melancholy, looking like she wished she had ordered carnitas.

Stand before Glackens' near-impressionistic work a while. Then walk across the room to the painting from John Sloan, another East Coast realist, whose “Renganeschi's Saturday Night” from 1912 depicts the rise of Italian restaurants. The tablecloths may be white but the place, with modest green walls, small tables and cramped seating, is a checkerboard-tablecloth-and-red-sauce establishment. Spirits are light. The first table could be a turn-of-the-century bachelorette party, the next occupied by Mumford & Sons. As the Art Institute wall note says: Artists in 1905 gravitated to Italian, hunting for “interesting and cheap meals.”

Hipsters.

All of this is not to say that, because we would rather lounge at a picnic table with a plate of BBQ than sit up straight for Scottish pigeon served on rare China, fine dining is endangered. As journalist Luke Barr illustrates in his new history, “Provence, 1970,” about the rewriting of American food by Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher and James Beard, the definition of fine dining is fluid, the farm-to-table pretensions of 2013 rooted in the earnest reactions of chefs and critics in the late '60s to a stifling “European superiority and French snobbery” that had settled in. Subsequently, in “Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters and the Making of a New American Food Culture,” New Yorker staff writer Dana Goodyear documents the contemporary rise of a more daring definition of fine dining, centered on hard-to-find ethnic specialties like live octopus and ants — “pleasure heightened at the brink of calamity.”

Bare wooden tables or white linen, poached fowl or sauted bugs — fine dining will outlast fashion.

And yet, a pair of thoughts leap out of “Art and Appetite”: The first is that the most extravagant dining in these paintings happens in still lifes and chilly rooms. The early 19th-century bowls of fruit and dessert plates painted by Raphaelle Peale and Charles Bird King — photo-realistic, cold and already nostalgic for the way a smart American should eat — become precursors to food porn and the idea that food itself can be fetishized. “Game,” a grisly, disturbing 1860 painting from Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, shows a mound of dead deer, fowl, rabbit and goose. Part of a sub-genre of art popular in 19th-century upper-class dining rooms, it reveals how, even 150 years ago, when the country was more rural, we longed to congratulate ourselves on understanding the pedigree and source of our food while, in reality, progressively, we didn't want to know.

You walk past these works in a way that's not possible with a Norman Rockwell.

Indeed, the other thing you notice about “Art and Appetite” is this: Crowds of museumgoers congregate around the less opulent images. To some extent, this has more to do with the blockbuster nature of those paintings than not wanting to wear a nice shirt to dinner: Of course, there are crowds around Rockwell's “Freedom From Want,” with its iconic (and no less food-porny) depiction of a New England Thanksgiving Day family dinner, and Edward Hopper's noirish “Nighthawks,” one of the jewels of the Art Institute's holdings.

But in the context of a show so stuffed with fine dining, these works feel radical.

“Freedom From Want” seems to actually glow on the Art Institute wall, whatever kitsch it may contain tamped down now by a yearning for that long communal table, loving family and contentment. Similarly, though “Nighthawks” is widely read as a commentary on alienation — “patrons refrain from any sense of togetherness,” the wall note says — its diner looks like a great place to eat. Simply, it looks comfortable. If the place were real — and its backdrop is as generic as a movie set — you'd have to book a table three weeks out.

That is aspirational dining in 2013, eating that evokes feelings of reassurance, sentiment, memory.

Tellingly, the show does not move beyond the mid-'70s: Curator Judith Barter, who organized “Art and Appetite,” said in an email that she wanted the exhibit to come full circle, to “return to local ingredients and the attention to real cooking” that mark latter pieces. And to an extent, the Smart Museum of Art's 2012 exhibit, “Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art,” somewhat covered the last few decades nicely.

Besides, what is there to say about our proclivities for dining in 2013 that Willard Metcalf's “The Ten Cent Breakfast,” from 1887, doesn't already cover? It shows four shadowy figures seated around the table of a small inn. One man is reading a newspaper. Another has a soft glow on his face; he could be reading his 19th-century iPhone. Meanwhile, the other two lounge, sipping coffee, chewing up their morning in a public place.

It's a comforting, familiar image, and I believe today it's called Starbucks.

“Art and Appetite” is on display through Jan. 27 at The Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave., 312-443-3600 or artic.edu.

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli


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