The McNay Art Museum celebrates San Antonio food culture with The Art of SA Eats, an exhibition combining poppy depictions of sweets and recreations of old-school restaurants and signage.
The Art of SA Eats/Sabor a San Antonio
August 4, 2021-January 23, 2022
McNay Art Museum, San Antonio
It may not boast the glitz of Dallas, the diversity of Houston, or the live music of Austin, but San Antonio has plenty to brag about.
For starters, it’s the most visited city in Texas—thanks to its famed River Walk, the Alamo, and the San Antonio Missions (the Lone Star State’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site). Beyond these touristic draws, San Antonio is a colorful, warm, art-loving city that’s filled with museums, galleries, and murals—many of which pay tribute to the city’s Mexican-American heritage.
As it steadily emerges from the shadows of other big Texas cities, San Antonio has also made considerable strides as a culinary destination—one that aims to go far beyond its designation as the birthplace of the puffy taco.
Opened in 1954 and billed as “the first modern art museum in Texas,” the McNay is an undeniable local treasure housed in a Spanish Colonial Revival mansion reinforced with a slick, 45,000-square-foot contemporary wing. No stranger to works by global art stars (Yayoi Kusama’s infinity mirror room All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins recently wrapped a six-month run), the museum also does a commendable job of highlighting established and emerging San Antonio artists.
The most recent example of these efforts takes shape in The Art of SA Eats/Sabor a San Antonio, a tight group show that celebrates local food culture through the eyes of five artists: Ana Fernandez, Eva Marengo Sanchez, Ben Ortiz, Steven Cromwell, and late local legend Chuck Ramirez. Contrasting poppy depictions of sweet treats with reverent recreations of old-school restaurants and signage, the exhibition can be consumed quickly but divulges little secrets upon closer inspection.
Few San Antonio artists have managed to make impressions as deep as those left by Chuck Ramirez, who died in a tragic bicycle accident in 2010. During his foreshortened career, Ramirez pulled from his professional background in graphic design and advertising to stage stark and striking photographs of overlooked, everyday objects that run the gamut from decapitated piñatas and empty chocolate boxes to weathered brooms and wilting bouquets. Represented in numerous collections, his work is simultaneously poppy and poignant—and ever more relevant with the passing of time.
Part of a 2004 series commissioned by the River Walk restaurant Acenar, his photographs of a pecan praline, an acid-green lime paleta, a piece of pink cake, and a coconut treat dyed to resemble the Mexican flag—all of which are amusingly missing one perfect bite—are the highest-profile works in The Art of SA Eats, but are quietly tucked in a corner of the McNay’s elegant Frost Octagon.
There’s a clear conversation happening between Ramirez and Eva Marengo Sanchez—a rising San Antonio artist who gained an appreciation for food culture while studying in Mexico City. “I love food and its power to carry memory, create community and shape identity, and as the subject of my work, it’s the way I express my family history, life in San Antonio, and contemporary Mexican-American culture,” Sanchez writes in her artist statement.
Perhaps known best for her food-centric murals on the St. Mary’s Strip and the San Antonio International Airport, Sanchez has a knack for realistic renderings and shares Ramirez’s proclivity to isolate objects on an austere white background.
Easily the exhibition’s breakout star, Sanchez dominates the high-ceilinged room with a vivid trio of fruit cups and six yellow conchas (mainstays of traditional Mexican bakeries). Thoughtfully, Sanchez’s grid of conchas represents six different San Antonio panaderías, the names of which are discreetly painted on the side of each canvas. Evidenced by the glare on plastic cups and the glittery pink sugar adorning the conchas, Sanchez’s attention to detail is truly masterful. Case in point: her near-photographic realism had one perplexed museum-goer questioning Ramirez’s medium of choice. (“Are these photos… or paintings?”)
An accomplished artist and entrepreneur who earned a Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters & Sculptors Grant in 2018, Ana Fernandez is arguably the best-known living artist in The Art of SA Eats.
Fitting swimmingly into the context of this exhibition, she’s known for both moody slice-of-life paintings—of front yards, convenience stores, neighborhood scenes, fruterías and taquerías—and elaborate confections she sells through her wildly popular Tex-Mex food concept Chamoy City Limits. A fast-paced look at her routine as a restaurateur and food truck operator, Fernandez’s video Chamoy City Limits Ice Cream Truck zooms in on her colorful creations in the making, including the signature mangonadas she tops with salty-sour chamoy (a sauce made from pickled plums) and rims with chili powder.
For all the delicious-looking eye candy it serves up, The Art of SA Eats offers visual counterbalance via works by Ben Ortiz and Steven Cromwell that nod to architecture and historical preservation.
While Ortiz’s small-scale oil paintings faithfully recreate the neon signs that have long graced the iconic San Antonio eateries Mexican Manhattan (which shuttered permanently amid the pandemic) and Bun-N-Barrel, Cromwell’s mixed-media dioramas are incredibly detailed homages to landmark establishments including the historic soul club Tucker’s Kozy Korner, the enduring Tex-Mex joint Oscar’s Taco House, and the gone-but-not-forgotten Malt House—complete with impossibly small signs painted in the windows. Cromwell, who studied drawing under Fernandez at Northeast Lakeview College, even delivers a meta moment that puts a circular spin on The Art of SA Eats—a miniature replica of his former instructor’s Chamoy City Limits Ice Cream Truck.
The Art of SA Eats is scheduled to remain on display through January 23, 2022, at the McNay Art Museum, 6000 North New Braunfels Avenue.