New York

Sharon Core

Bellwether

Photography has long been the helpmate of painting. Thomas Eakins secretly painted from photographs; Richter and Warhol transformed the practice for the second half of the twentieth century. But could the tide be shifting? For her photographic series “Thiebauds,” 2003–2004, photographer (and trained pastry chef) Sharon Core painstakingly baked the components of eleven of Wayne Thiebaud’s food paintings, the majority from the early ’60s, and then proceeded to photograph the results.

It’s interesting to note that Thiebaud reportedly painted his works from memory; by baking, decorating, and setting up her wares in such a way that their background and lighting closely approximated Thiebaud’s image, Core pits skill (baking and photography) against hand and imagination. For Pie Counter, 2004, and Salad, Sandwiches and Dessert, 2003, she exactly re-created his compositions, and in Delicatessen Counter, 2003, the trays and hand-painted signs ape the originals perfectly as well. Colors, frosting patterns, shadows, reflections: Core copied all of it.

To experience Core’s work is to take part in a particular kind of looking and remembering. Part of the fun of the show was to pick up the Thiebaud catalogue at the front desk and compare his images with hers. The results were both instructive and startling as you noted Core’s success in reproducing minute details, from the colors around the rim of a dish to the brushstrokes in the background of Five Hot Dogs, 2003. Despite her efforts, however, Core’s “Thiebauds” are obviously not perfect simulacra. Her surfaces are reflective, her colors more saturated, and her pictures brighter overall. Thiebaud’s paintings are famous for likening the facture of frosting with paint, and this texture plus a certain pastel-color nostalgic quality contrasts sharply with the smooth immediacy of the photographed images. And, while the project initially reads as an homage to Thiebaud, the more you look the more complex it becomes—Thiebaud ends up as the excuse for the project rather than its focus. Core’s series asks the question, What can painting do that photography can’t? Thiebaud set the score and Core followed, but in comparing the two, his paintings seem fresh and loose—almost abstract, as if they were representing some platonic cake or cream soup or candy apple rather than an actual one—and Core’s project seems overearnest, like an academic trying to make sure she hasn’t missed an important detail.

Before seeing “Thiebauds,” the viewer might assume the exhibition will turn out to be another lesson in the contemporary supremacy of photography, a demonstration of its domination of everyday life. But rather than make you feel photography has eclipsed painting, “Thiebauds” marks its limits—even makes you feel kind of sorry for the newer medium. After all, painting seems to have a resiliency and limitless ability to absorb new visual technologies and forms of representation while remaining relatively independent and unfettered. Perhaps this reminds us of the original case of medium envy: how Thiebaud, obsessed with the seductions of cake frosting, decided to make his paintings into feasts for the eyes.

Martha Schwendener