Sugar rush: Peter Anton’s art turns Lyman Allyn into a candy land
Imagine being a character in a mash-up of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”
That’s how it feels to wander into the Lyman Allyn Art Museum galleries that are showcasing the whimsical food-centric art of Peter Anton.
On the wall is an ice cream bar — the height of an adult — with moisture beads gathered around a patch of iciness; shards of chocolate break into the white ice cream where it looks as though someone has taken an enthusiastic bite. A multi-hued cake that seems almost as big as a beanbag chair sits on a pedestal, the frosting glistening invitingly around the moist-looking cake. Stop-sign-sized lollipops are lined up and glimmer in a rainbow of colors.
Fans of art — and dessert — can see “Sweet Dreams: Confectionery Sculpture” through Oct. 18 at the Lyman Allyn in New London. (Worth noting: The Lyman Allyn is offering free museum admission to everyone through Labor Day.)
Anton, who lives and works in Fairfield, has been creating these playful works since the 1990s. Smithsonian American Art Museum senior curator Virginia Mecklenburg has described his art as “witty, funny (and) transformative.”
Anton crafts the oversized sweets using plaster, wood, metal, resin and other materials — whatever he needs to best recreate the real thing. A single piece can take up to two or three months to complete.
On a recent day, Anton was working in his studio on a commission for a collector in Germany; the piece was a fried egg. His work has indeed gone worldwide; he has had solo exhibitions around the globe, and his art is in collections at Lisser Museum in The Netherlands, the Copelouzos Art Museum in Greece, and the Portland Art Museum in Oregon.
While he’s now enjoying accolades and has gained devoted fans with these unconventional pieces, it wasn’t easy for Anton at first. He went to New York City in the early 1990s, armed with one of his food artworks — a giant cantaloupe — to try to interest a gallery in his creations.
“When I got on the subway, everybody was smiling and came around me, and they were laughing and asking me questions. The whole subway car lit up.
“When I went to the gallery, a brick wall hit me. They were so not interested and so mean. It was really bad,” he says with a laugh. “It was really completely opposite. But I still felt that they were wrong because people are people, and the people in the subway car liked it. So therefore, somebody must like this. So I just kept pursuing, pursuing, and finally, one gallery decided to give me a show.”
Things progressed fairly quickly after that. One noteworthy incident: An Anton cereal box called “Breakfast with Bill” was given to then-President Bill Clinton by one of his friends.
Another amusing anecdote: a gallery sold a work of Anton’s — a giant red pepper, cut open, with seeds — and the gallery owner told Anton that the woman who bought it sent her driver to pick it up, putting the art in the backseat. Anton imagines it: “I pictured this big, fancy car, and in the backseat, my red pepper all by itself.”
First sculpture: frozen TV dinner
Anton, who grew up in New Haven, has always been intrigued by art and food. When he was little, he would hang around the kitchen. While his mother was cooking, he remembers, “I would take all the food scraps and the empty boxes, and I would play with them and assemble them and make structures out of them.”
His older sister used to sneak him into the courtyards at the Yale University School of Art and bring him to the Yale University Art Gallery, all of which made quite an impression on the boy.
Anton didn’t realize he had artistic ability until, in grammar school, his teachers hung his creations in the glass cases by the school’s main entrance and submitted his work for contests, which he tended to win. The teachers also asked Anton if they could keep his artwork, so he doesn’t have any left from that era.
As with many families, food was central to the Antons’ celebrations of holidays and other occasions, and that helped inspire Peter to meld his love of art with the greater meanings and implications behind food.
“I was always thinking about how food — it’s something we all have in common. It brings people together. It’s such an important part of life, and I love the colors and textures, so it was just a natural thing. I went straight into food (with my art). My first sculpture was a frozen TV dinner,” he says.
Anton sometimes cooks up food that he is creating in his art. When he was designing chocolate-dipped orange peels for a collector, he went through the whole cooking process himself and kept making fresh batches so he could study them. He used a magnifying glass to ensure he got the color just right.
Preferring people who enjoy sweets
On the wall in one of the Lyman Allyn’s galleries is this quote from Anton: “I prefer the company of people who enjoy sweets.”
And, yes, he enjoys sweets himself. He eats chocolate every night before he goes to bed.
Beyond that quote, the exhibition doesn’t do a lot of explicating, except for the introductory wall text, which includes:
“For Peter Anton, food goes beyond necessity and indulgence; it is a gateway to memory and emotion. His oversized, hyperrealistic confections immediately surprise and delight, conjuring up childhood memories of frosty popsicles melting in the summer sun and chalky candy hearts received on Valentine’s Day. … Depicting intrinsically ephemeral objects — foods to be eaten, that melt or decay if unconsumed — his sculptures capture fleeting moments in time ...
“His work has clear roots in Pop Art and builds on such works at Claes Oldenbug’s gigantic sculptures of common objects and Wayne Thiebaud’s depictions of commercialized desserts.
“Here, Anton’s subjects are iconic American sweets, largely mass-produced and instantly recognizable. They connect us at once to individual sensory memory and shared cultural identity. The exaggerated scale and exacting detail both tease out senses and encourage exploration of our ideas about appetite, consumption, pleasure, overindulgence and even addiction.”
One of the joys for Anton is that, after seeing his art, people often tell him their own food-related stories about their lives and their childhoods.
“They have all these unique memories of certain foods — family occasions and summers, and it’s all great stories,” he says during our phone interview.
“People tear up as well, and they are telling me these stories, like, you know, ‘When I was a kid, the ice cream truck would come, and my brother and I didn’t have enough money, and we would wait for the truck and this is what we ate.’ ‘My aunt used to buy donuts every Sunday’ … You could tell, it was real, coming right from their heart and their soul.”
Most often, the art inspires warm, happy memories of childhood.
“I think it’s important to remember that childlike feeling, so you don’t have the heaviness of everyday life, because everything’s so negative, especially lately,” he says. “We really need to stay grounded.”
If you go
What: “Sweet Dreams: Confectionery Sculpture”
Where: Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St., New London:
When: Now through Oct. 18; hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 1-5 p.m. Sun.
Admission: Free through Labor Day
For more info and details of safety protocols: (860) 443-2545, www.lymanallyn.org