Los Angeles

Adam Higgins, Caesar salad with lemon wedge, boiled egg, and baguette slices, 2022, oil and canvas mounted on panel, 30 × 36".

Adam Higgins, Caesar salad with lemon wedge, boiled egg, and baguette slices, 2022, oil and canvas mounted on panel, 30 × 36".

Adam Higgins

“My Salad Years,” the title of Adam Higgins’s debut exhibition at Chris Sharp Gallery, was a paean to innocence, channeling the halcyon times spoken of in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1623), where “green” connotes youth as much as lettuce. Yet the artist’s deft, nearly photorealistic renditions of salads—Caesars more specifically, keeping with the classical theme—do belie this, as they suggest durational practice and studied command of painting’s devices instead. In any case, Higgins has worked on this subject exclusively for the past two years. (An iterative body of work from 2019 focused on California halibut, and was executed with a similar formal and conceptual approach.) The installation here contained eight oil-on-canvas-mounted-on-panel compositions of varying size, some of which were overwhelmingly, even preposterously, large (the biggest was five by six feet). Despite the shifts of physical and pictorial scale, all shared a consistent framing device hovering at some indeterminate distance over the neatly composed food that, in the artist’s hands, was made unequivocally and viscerally strange. Caesar salad with gulf shrimp and red chard (all works 2022), for instance, featured some chopped romaine and darker, crimson-veined leaves layered with oddly projecting crouton geometries and glistening prawns, while Caesar salad with chicken and housefly contained gruesomely gelatinous morsels of raw poultry atop waxy puddles of dressing.

Evidently commensurate with strategies of merchandising and commercial cuisine photography—or its social media counterparts via the food-porn gurus—the works nevertheless made clear the extent to which they are engaged in histories of painting (and the medium’s preeminent status within the art market), as well as in conventions of picturing, of world-making within the representational order of a given frame. They earnestly recalled the genre of still life, from seventeenth-century Dutch meditations on abundance, consumption, and mortality to Édouard Manet’s own self-conscious renditions of white asparagus and splayed oysters. Higgins’s versions differently image the scenes from above, making their passage to the verticality of the wall that much more pronounced. For his part, the artist also names the influence of Jackson Pollock’s allover spreads, and there is in Higgins’s imagery—vis-à-vis Leo Steinberg’s flatbed picture plane, but realized as a tabletop at a chain restaurant or the bounty of a proud home cook—a link to Pollock’s floor-bound abstractions, always intended for upright wall display.

Higgins’s downward gaze at items propped back up, arrayed, and shot under harsh light sometimes occludes his subject matter, despite the work’s technical prowess. Caesar salad with pecorino romano lump is especially gnomic: Flush to the plate (or bowl, or countertop, or generalizable and defiantly nondescript support) are crisp cuts of green drizzled in dressing that alternately oozes and clumps. Gingerly resting atop the whole thing is a wedge of cheese that glows aggressively incandescent, a monochrome obstacle at the painting’s center.

With Caesar salad with lemon wedge, boiled egg, and baguette slices, Higgins tips the plane of table upward and dims the lights. It is a terrifically perverse kind of nocturne. Under an indeterminately hued cast, more intact leaves funnel the same mix of olive oil, egg yolk, pepper flecks, garlic, and the rest to the sliced bread that awaits. Raw ingredients remain intact, too: A sectioned lemon sits in the picture’s upper-right corner, with a half of a hard-boiled egg below it. The original recipe for the Caesar, concocted in Mexico by Italian restauranteur Caesar Cardini, who left the United States during Prohibition, called for lime. Yet crossing the nearby Tijuana border meant swapping lime for lemon and, more generally, banalizing the dish while effacing its origins.

It is tempting to read something of the history and geopolitics of the salad from Higgins’s props, and to posit these inanimate objects as bodily surrogates (as the anchovy carcasses are already). But this interpretation coexists with the mutability of creamy dressing and paint, and the unshakable fact of the salad as pretext for formal play. Meyer Schapiro famously argued that realism re-creates the world by a “series of abstract calculations of perspective and gradation of color.” In this show, Higgins performed as much. In salad years, one can have it both ways.