Artist cooks up food for thought

Man cannot live by bread alone. Sometimes you have to stick a piece in the toaster and call it art.

One morning over breakfast, New Zealander Maurice Bennett eyed the lightly browned rectangle of grilled bread just before he took a chomp out of it. He was reminded of a work by New York artist Chuck Close.

"Ha, that picture could have been done in toast," the former grocery store owner said. The next thing he knew, he'd created a giant toasted portrait of Close.

Since that grilled phenomenon in 1998, Bennett has cooked up other portraits in toast, including the Mona Lisa (2001), which is made of 2,124 slices of toast; and Elvis Presley (2002), made of 3,525 slices of cocktail toast. One of the enduring monuments Bennett has produced is the 1999 giant billboard of former Wellington Mayor Mark Blumsky, made from 2,724 slices of toast.

Bennett's earlier works were done on a two-slice toaster. Several thousand slices later, Bennett moved his studio into a nearby Wellington bread factory, where he uses commercial ovens to toast up to 90 slices of toast at a time.

"The portraits require many thousands of slices of bread, toasted to different tones to create skin highlights and shadow," he explains. To keep his works from disintegrating - or being pecked apart by birds - each piece of toast is soaked in polyurethane.

Food in art has been around since cavemen started drawing on walls. But artists working closely with edibles took off with 16th-century artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who produced painted portraits substituting onions for eyes, and a squash or a carrot for a nose.

Daniel Spoerri, the fluxus artist, made art history by displaying his guests' leftovers in his Chelsea Hotel apartment in the 1960s, titling them "trap," or "snare" paintings.

Still lifes of food are as old as the paintbrush, and Andy Warhol and other pop artists like Wayne Thibaud turned to subjects like cans of Campbell's soup, Coca-Cola, ice cream cones, and diner-counter slices of pie.

Allan Kaprow, the king of American Happenings, offered the world "Eat," a labyrinth where visitors munch on radishes, onions, and scallions. Contemporary French artist Nicholas Floch has made a living spelling out words in salt and tomato plants in Brittany, France.

Bennett worked in canvas many years ago, but gave up traditional media for something with more bite in 1988 at the Wellington Fringe Festival, with an installation of charred found objects, including a stack of burnt toast, and a roasted woolen jacket entitled "Burning Desire."

"Just as an artist takes a blank canvas and with the use of paints creates an image," he explains, "I took objects, and using flames as my paintbrush, I created works of art."

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