Let’s start with the paintings of donuts portraying the seven deadly sins. Here are beautifully rendered portrayals of fat, lazy, jelly-filled pastries acting out transgressions such as sloth, greed and gluttony. And here’s more anthropomorphized food: Vibrant oil paintings of fruits and vegetables acting out the human migratory patterns that have contributed to our world’s us-versus-them attitudes.
These are the works of artist Denise Stewart-Sanabria. It’s hard to tell if she’s serious, if she’s just cracking herself up, or both. I don’t ask because I don’t want to know. I wish to be left alone with her beautiful, highly intelligent and quietly hilarious compositions, whatever their narrative undertones.
From a distance, Stewart- Sanabria’s paintings are so full of depth, color and movement that they look like photographs. But they’re not. This is a genre of art called hyperrealism.
Take Pink Gets Hot, a highly saturated work that depicts a shiny, white ceramic rabbit hauling a load of crumbly pink macarons against a backdrop of apple green and raspberry toile wallpaper. The rabbit’s reflection shines up from the polished kitchen counter, and the cookies look firm on the outside and soft in the middle—good enough to eat.
“I like to anthropomorphize bakery goods,” Stewart- Sanabria says. “They become characters on a stage, engaged in an attitude or actual behavior. I’ll pull them apart to make it look as if they’ve been through an adventure.”
Speaking of adventures, Stewart-Sanabria has recently embarked on a new adventure with interior design firm and art gallery Mitchell Hill and wallpaper and fabric vendor Style Library. In what is sure to be one of most unique Charleston exhibits of the year, the artist has created works that use Style Library fabric and wall covering patterns as the backdrop for her anthropomorphized food theater.
Stewart-Sanabria isn’t painting on the wallpaper or fabric; she’s actually painstakingly reproducing it in oil on canvas. You will have to get close to the work, however, to be able to tell the difference. (In the gallery, the paintings will be displayed alongside the actual fabric or wall covering, so you can be thoroughly wowed.)
The artist is a deep thinker, and no element in her work is random. We have a lengthy discussion about the intersection of culture and wallpaper.
“The history of commercial design is the history of culture,” Stewart-Sanabria says of working with traditional wallpaper and fabric prints. “These designs reflect the ideals of the time.” For example, she explains that in the 1800s French toile depicted idealized country life for city dwellers. “Food is the same way now— it’s idealized. In these works, I’m juxtaposing food from one time against patterns from another.”
The food Stewart-Sanabria uses in her compositions is real. She buys it from bakeries, or she bakes her own cakes. “With culinary paintings, you’re dealing with visual appetites,” she says. “I try to amp up the color in my paintings.” Which sometimes means baking cakes with inedible, but vivid, ingredients.
“This show incorporates two facets of our business,” says Ashley Miller, Mitchell Hill’s gallery director. “Her paintings bring to the canvas what we intend to bring to your home, utilizing the blended mix of the creative relationships we have built over time with artists and vendors.” Mitchell Hill is an interior design studio and one of Charleston’s most beloved art galleries. Style Library is an umbrella for six British fabric and textile brands: Zoffany, Harlequin, Sanderson, Morris & Co., Scion, and Anthology.
For this body of work, the artist worked with Miller to choose a selection of fabrics and wallpapers that would serve as the backdrops of new works for the show. A sneak peek reveals an elegant yellow and blue Japanese toile; a sweet blue and peach paper that features rabbits, deer and other animals frolicking among Greek ruins; a contemporary geometric in cool tones; a bold beige and white poppy motif; and a chocolaty botanical.
The show opens Friday, April 12 at Mitchell Hill and will run through the end of the month.
Robin Howard is a full-time freelance writer in Charleston. See more of her work at robinhowardwrites.com.