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Show of prints drawn from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation is a masterful slice and dice of tasteful objects

COURTESY PHOTO: CHRIS ANTEMANN - Chris Antemann's 'Covet' sexes up the 17th century German porcelain dinner table decoration, in the Art of Food at Portland State University.

Any way you slice it, food is a big subject in visual art. From Caravaggio's peaches to Andy Warhol's cows, artists have for centuries been painting what's in front of them and making viewers salivate (or shudder). For curator Olivia Miller, once she got her hands on Jordan Schnitzer's huge collection of fine art prints, her task was to click on food-inclusive works that appealed to her, and divide them into sections to make sense of such a broad topic.

The resulting exhibition, The Art of Food, which runs at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University now through Oct. 29, is an amusing, well-organized run through the last hundred years showing what's on the mind of the starving artist. For Jasper Johns it was cans of ale. For Bruce Nauman it was black coffee. For local hero Malia Jensen, butter, boobs and donuts.

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND STATE UNIVERSITY - One of Donald Sultan's four 'Lemons'.  Try not to salivate.

Make lemonade

And for Donald Sultan it was lemons. His four screen-printed lemons leap off the wall in the lower level of the museum. Three of them are jet black and have thick, velvety texture from using tar-like ink. Only one is yellow, and one of the backgrounds is a muted orange. They are really just lemon silhouettes, ovals with a bump on each end, nothing but shape. Miller, who is the curator of exhibitions at the University of Arizona Museum of Art where the show originated, told Pamplin Media Group that she chose them from a binder of prints without realizing how big they were. "Even in the reproductive form, they had such a strong graphic impact, and I was mesmerized at the way that Donald Sultan could take these seemingly ordinary objects, magnify them, strip away their details and you still get the essence of a lemon." She says somehow Sultan magnified the lemons, but also reduced them, and kept their lemony essence.

Next to them are lithographs of different fruit — pears, apples, quince etc. — by Ellsworth Kelly. They are based off simple line drawings, rather like the exercise of drawing without removing the pencil from the paper. The lines are fluent, the shapes sensuous. The pear may have its nub at the base, but there is little more detail. With the stems left on, the pointed leaves often form a halo around the round, fruiting body.

They are part of a larger series, "Suite of plant lithographs". "I was really drawn to them because they are so naturalistic, and again, similar to Sultan, Ellsworth Kelly has reduced them to their most essential elements." A single line is enough for us to know what they are.

"It's also a testament to humans and their sensory capabilities, the way that we can also look at a single line and imagine the colors, you can imagine the scent, you can imagine the taste, and I just find that to be such a beautiful relationship between the artwork and the viewer."

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND STATE UNIVERSITY - The Art of Food at Portland State University, now through Oct. 29.

Chris Antemann lives in the Wallowas and makes audacious porcelain figurines. Based on 18th century German centerpieces, of the kind found at state and aristocratic banquets, Antemann makes her figures sexually active. Instead of picking apples and dancing, her women are offering apples — and often their own rear ends — to the shirtless swains and lords in her china scenarios.

"Covet" shows an incipient menage at trois on a loaded dinner table, while "Fruit Pyramid" is a bowl piled high with ceramic fruit, including apples and figs, with couples flirting on the stem and the base.

Miller says Antemann's mini swingers, along with Sultans's lemons, jumped out at her and she built the downstairs show around them.

Antemann partnered with the venerable Meissen porcelain factory in Germany to create these colorfully painted pieces, which are fired to a high heat and can contain delicate details such as flowers, fingers and lips. With their high gloss and high irony there's a lot of 1990s Jeff Koons about them.

"She taps into this 18th century aesthetic and brings it into a very contemporary and very humorous point of view. These porcelains are so stunningly beautiful."

Reading about Antemann's work is part of the enjoyment. "It does take you on this journey where you can learn about the techniques of the Meissen porcelain factory, which in turn makes you want to learn about the decorative arts during the 1700s." Antemann was inspired by Johann Joachim Kändler's monumental Love Temple (1750). "And the fact that decorative objects have a lot of meaning behind them, besides just being pretty things to look at. She really brings that conversation into the 21st century."

COURTESY PHOTO: AARON WESSLING PHOTOGRAPHY - Andy Warhol, Cow, 1966, screenprint on wallpaper mounted on canvas.

Sex and drugs

Another local heroine, Sherrie Wolf, has several delicious-looking still lifes, including some prints that trace the life of Artemisia Gentileschi. She was a successful Italian baroque painter who was raped and endured a horrendous public trial. Wolf here draws attention to her back story as well as her sumptuous surfaces.

Other unmissable pieces in the show include Damien Hirst's screenprints where he takes big pharma packaging graphics and pretends they contains bog-standard British foods, such as steak and kidney pie, mushy peas and, in the morphine box, "Chicken." Miller again likes how the artist scaled the imagery up from six inches to about six feet. Drugs, nosh, brand-watching … this is art you can hang on your wall and which everyone can talk about.

Another prolific Catholic artist, Andy Warhol, was apparently told by his dealer, Ivan Karp, to "do some cows" in 1966. The resulting gaily colored, repeating image of a cow photo from a book, blandly titled "Cow", Miller says reminds her of factory farming, an interpretation she is happy to apply looking backwards at the 1960s. A Robert Rauschenberg "Bull Profile Series", where he repeatedly abstracts a bull in Picasso like Cubism, has the same effect. We end up with a series of cuts of meat.

An excellent show, the Art of Food has much to tell us about how artists see what's on their plate, and how they serve it up to the rest of us.

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