7 Apr 2024

A feast for the eyes: The hyperrealist paintings of Alice Toomer

From Culture 101, 12:30 pm on 7 April 2024
Butter - Alice Toomer

Butter - Alice Toomer Photo: Supplied

Alice Toomer

Alice Toomer in her studio. Photo: Supplied

They say that art feeds the soul, but Alice Toomer's paintings could almost feed more than that.

The Pōneke Wellington-based artist's latest exhibition features an array of hyperrealistic paintings of food: a thick slab of slowly softening butter, wrapped salamis strung from the ceiling, a wedge of blue cheese reflected in a glass table.

Hyperrealism - a term that first appeared in the 1970s - describes high-fidelity realism in both sculpture and painting. It is a tradition that can be said to stretch back to 17th century European painting and is seen as a step further from photorealism. 

Double Scoop Chocolate - Alice Toomer

Double Scoop Chocolate by Alice Toomer. Photo: Supplied

Toomer said she chose to keep returning to the subject of food because it was "evocative and visceral".

"It transcends language. You’re overcome with so many beautiful sensations - taste, the smell, the colour and the textures are always changing.”

Toomer held her first exhibition at the age of 12. Her latest, Bread and Butter in Wellington, is her first in nine years. 

"My last exhibition was in Wānaka so [this] was quite nerve-wracking to enter into a new area and art space. But I feel like the risk paid off - just seeing my friends and the public. It was a really special thing."

Toomer's previous paintings were mostly of colourful sweets and desserts like Snifters, Minties and ice cream.

"I was just really interested in practising my skill set and exploring different textures within that, whether it be the plastic wrappers, paper wrappers of the Minties or shiny surfaces of the lollies," she said.

For this exhibition, she turned to finer foods like wine, cheese and salami, depicting the objects with darker, more toned-down backdrops.

Toomer said "Instagram dining culture" - capturing images of fine food - had strong links through the history of art, including the Golden Age of still life paintings.

She took inspiration from the likes of Dutch Golden Age painter Adriaen Coorte, along with more contemporary artists like Roberto Bernardi and Pedro Campos.

She appreciated the long hours devoted to their art and immaculate detail in their work, she said - but did not want to emulate the same intense level of detail in her own.

Blue Cheese - Alice Toomer

Blue Cheese - Alice Toomer Photo: Supplied

“I’m sitting somewhere in between that accurate detail but then having a few brush strokes still present, so you know a hand has been there and working on this thing.”

The exhibition was also representative of the stage she was at in life, she said. 

"I’m getting friends around and we’re getting those sorts of foods for dinner.

"I think it reflects this curiosity that I’m fostering - the colour palette is really muted compared to what I was painting before."

Salami - Alice Toomer

Salami - Alice Toomer Photo: Supplied

Her father, John Toomer, is also a painter, and she was exposed from a young age to the practice and practicalities of art as a full-time career.  

"I’ve definitely seen the highs and lows and how volatile it can be. It depends on the market and whether people are buying."

Toomer said it required a lot of sacrifice and hard work, "never knowing whether you’re going to make a sale".

Bottle Bags - Alice Toomer

Bottle Bags, by Alice Toomer. Photo: Supplied

She took a break from painting after high school, studied film at university and found a love for cinematography.

That led back into her painting, helping her to light her subjects effectively.

“It felt so amazing to be able to express that in a different format, while learning new skills and how to handle technology.

“Working independently with painting and then working within a group, working on set and on film projects; there’s quite a beautiful balance between those things.”

Bread and Butter will be at Twenty Six Gallery in Newtown, Wellington until 14 April.