Tastykakes as fine art was no half-baked idea

Posted: April 25, 2001

TASTYKAKE PAINTINGS by artist Jan Elmy, Rittenhouse Fine Art, 1723 Spruce St. Show opens with reception 5:30-8:30 tonight, and continues 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, through June 10. Info: 215-735-2676.

Provence has its starry nights, so Van Gogh painted those.

Tahiti has beautiful women in sarongs, so Gauguin painted them.

And Philadelphia? Well, we have Tastykakes, so Jan Elmy is painting them.

The Maryland-based artist is known mostly for her Chesapeake landscapes and snack-food-free still lifes. But this year, she found herself inspired by Krimpets and Kandy Kakes.

Especially the Jelly Krimpets. "Those things are addictive," the artist sighed.

Elmy's four stately paintings of Tastykakes go on display today at the Rittenhouse Fine Art gallery, 1723 Spruce St.

Elmy, 52, has never lived in Philadelphia, though she is a frequent exhibitor here (and last year's "Best In Show" at the annual Rittenhouse Square art show). She'd never indulged in the local pastry, much less depicted one in oils.

But Elmy has long incorporated brand names and signs of modern culture into her still lifes. "I do it like the Old Masters, except I put a contemporary aspect in it," she explained in a recent phone interview from California.

"I'd do a still life, but the little challenge for me was to put in a grocery price sticker on the fruit, or the 'Sunkist' stamp on the lemon."

Elmy painted a couple of still lifes incorporating Hershey's Kisses ("I had some around the house"), which intrigued her Philadelphia representative, gallery owner and publicist Mitch Zamarin.

He suggested she depict some Tastykakes in her work, to spark additional interest in this city. "He said they were a mainstay of Philadelphians," Elmy said.

Zamarin made contact with Hunting Park's Tasty Baking Co., which promptly dispatched three cases of pastries to Elmy, wintering in Krimpet-deprived California.

Robin Caterson, marketing coordinator at Tasty, said once Tasty execs had seen samples of Elmy's work, they were happy to provide her with samples of theirs.

"We were thrilled," Caterson said. "It's pretty flattering that Tastykake can inspire someone of her ability."

In addition to the usual satisfactions Tastykakes provide, they offered Elmy new artistic challenges as well.

"I love the blues of the packaging, and the red in the jelly [Krimpet] - I can't even describe that red. It was very challenging to make that red on canvas," she said.

Lettering Tasty's trademark labels and capturing the transparency of the wrappers also required new skills, she said.

Elmy had no qualms about creating fine art that could be considered advertising for a product. Instead, she said, she views the Tastykake still lifes as "a portrait of their product."

"I look at it all as fine art," she added. "I think all four paintings are very powerful."

Of course, there's a history of brand names in fine art, said Dona Lantz, academic dean at Philadelphia's Moore College of Art and Design.

"It really did start with pop art, Andy Warhol and the soup cans, having the mundane 'commercial object' elevated to fine art," Lantz said.

"Oftentimes, it's a way to make us think about what we value, what we consume."

Elmy's work lets you think about Tastykakes in a variety of settings: Krimpets in a genteel tableau of embroidered napkins and porcelain tea cups; Kandy Kakes in a Western kitchen, with spurs and an enamel coffee pot; and the platonic ideal of Tastykakes, with boxes of chocolate cupcakes stacked atop a marble slab.

The Western still life, which Elmy says was inspired by her boyfriend Charlie Pecora's "cowboy band," Way Out West, was purchased this week for $5,800, a day before Elmy's show opened. *

Send e-mail to chapmaf@phillynews.com

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