Denise Stewart-Sanabria

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Denise Stewart-Sanabria was born in Massachusetts and received her BFA in Painting from the University of Massachusetts/Amherst. She has lived in Knoxville, TN since 1986.

 Sanabria paints both hyper-realist “portraits” of everything from produce to subversive jelly donuts. The anthropomorphic narratives often are reflections on human behavior. She is also known for her life-size charcoal portrait drawings on plywood, which are cut out, mounted on wood bases, and staged in conceptual installations.

 Her work is included in various museums, private, and corporate collections including: The Tennessee State Museum, The Evansville Museum of Art in Indiana, The Knoxville Museum of Art, Huntsville Museum of Art, Firstbank TN, Pinnacle Banks, Omni and Opryland Hotels, Scripps Networks, Knoxville Botanical Gardens, Jewelry Television, TriStar Energy, and the corporate offices of McGhee Tyson Airport

Artist Statement: Anthropomorphic Food Painting

Our relationship with what we eat is probably one of the most intimate relationships we have during our lifetime. It also, to a certain extent, can be a reflection of each individual human experience. Is what we want to eat risky? Is it adventurous or bland, or perhaps frightening? Is it healthy, or mired in toxic relationships? As a culture, what does our food say about us? If food itself was to enact human behavior, what would it do?

I use contemporary hyper-realism loosely informed by early European vanity painting clichés to explore these ideas. For instance, I’m not sure if 17th-century Spanish Baroque painter Juan Sánchez Cotán hung fruits and vegetables by strings to imitate how wild game was hung up in Dutch paintings of the time, or as a comment on the Inquisition. I like to think it is about the latter when I employ it.

Whether my paintings are an outright statement of some anthropological observation or a narrative of human foibles, I try to insert just enough humor and lusciousness to make them as palatable as possible. If I documented them literally, I would probably have constant censorship issues.

Over the years, I have had pears enact my Inquisition scenes, impaled maraschino cherries on nails, and had donuts enact the seven deadly sins and various fertility rites. My recent work involves allegorical narratives, driven by historical wallpaper appearing behind iconic contemporary baked goods and candy. A classic, regal French design is paired with a partially devoured Black Forest cake and decomposing flowers and then appears again behind a king cake, which is disgorging its Mardi Gras beads. A classic French pastoral toile print in a decidedly non-traditional color looms above a stack of artificially colored MoonPies and junk food. A classic Asian toile that I populated with Godzilla and his fellow movie monsters sits behind a vast array of candy that appears to have also been subjected to radioactive mutation.

I often combine artificially colored food with actual beauty products, such as fingernail polish in #130 Classic Coral Cream Glitter. I’ve actually embedded glitter in a painting to produce a more emboldened form of colored sugar in King Cake Glitter. I am presently continuing the series where I juxtapose a toile pattern I either design myself from scratch or discover, with ironic culinary foregrounds.

Stilllifes, or Vanitas, were originally domestic images containing items symbolic of life and death. Mine are about the human experience.

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