Do we really know where our food comes from? How it grows? If it’s really nutritious? Unless we grow all of our own vegetables, spices, and raise our own livestock, we cannot know for sure. In his new exhibit the Edible Landscape – now showing at the USU Eastern’s Gallery East through April 7 – Mark Crenshaw wrestles with this concept. “There’s just something primal about digging a turnip up from the ground and eating it. It feels more natural,” he says. “I like to eat the food I grow because I feel more connected to it.”
The Edible Landscape contains a series of oil paintings depicting fruit, vegetables, and groups of animals, many of which Crenshaw painted from his own backyard. Currently a student at Utah Valley University pursuing his BFA, he recently has begun studying art history in earnest, looking for inspiration from the past. “I always really liked Monet, but now I find myself more drawn to the work of Matisse and Cezanne because of the tension they build up in their compositions with the positioning of objects near the edges of the rectangle,” he comments.
Crenshaw, who was raised in Santaquin, has fond memories of growing up around fruit trees, which — he did not realize until recently — is one reason why he gravitates toward painting blossoms. Another is that blossoms allow him to experiment with abstraction, while keeping a system of a recognizable form. Included in his experimentation is the layering of pastel lines on top of his oil paint, as he says the pastels set good limits for his colors. “I like the bright, almost neon effect of the pastels,” he says. “If it was paint, I would be tempted to tone everything down, but with pastels I just have to work with the colors they give me.” His compositions also focus on optical mixing of colors, using the positioning of colors to create different tones in the viewer’s eyes.
The abstraction in his work, Crenshaw explains, is for the purpose of communicating a concept: being truly aware of what we put into our bodies. “I feel like we have lost our sense of taste,” Crenshaw says. “We should be able to tell whether a food is nutritious or provides something that we need by how it tastes.” Crenshaw personally experienced this sensation when he decided to become a vegetarian and kept it up for four years. “I would never kill a cow and eat it,” he says, “so I felt like I was pawning the dirty work on someone else.”
Pondering on the purpose of meat and his renewed consumption, Crenshaw began to paint groups of animals. “Groups of animals fit an aesthetic quality that I really liked; there’s a lot of energy and emotion there,” he explains. His training in drawing the figure at Provo’s Bridge Academy was also an inspiration, as Crenshaw wanted to continue pondering the processes of food acquisition while still being able to draw some sort of figure.
Admittedly in style it may seem that Crenshaw is moving through the stages of French art (Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, Realism, etc.) at a lightning pace, reviving a conversation that has been dead for over a century, but his new take on the representation of food as portraits of diet rather than simple still-lifes is intriguing. There is no question that his painting is of fine quality and well executed, and though he is still experimenting with abstraction, there is definitely an element of emotional connection present in his work, causing the viewer to question if they really know what they are eating.
Mark Crenshaw’s Edible Landscape is at USU Eastern’s Gallery East, in Price, March 13 – April 7.
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Hannah Sandorf Davis graduated with a degree in art history with a minor in visual arts from Brigham Young University.