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‘Cookout’ offers food for thought at Gallery 263 in Cambridge

Artist Zach Horn puts PB&J, spaghetti, and more on the table.

"Breakfast"Zach Horn

“Cookout,” painter Zach Horn’s playful exhibition at Gallery 263, evokes the conviviality of sharing a meal, but Horn doesn’t paint people. Instead, his canvases become tabletops, outfitted with silverware and sometimes food. His sculptural representations of food, made with pigment, plaster, and other ingredients, are uncannily good.

“Peanut Butter and Jelly III” is a giant grid of toast slices slathered with strawberry jam and peanut butter. It looks so realistic, I found myself examining the textures and shapes looking for tells — and there are some. The toast appears made from a series of molds, and shapes repeat.

"Peanut Butter and Jelly III"Courtesy of Zach Horn

Food has a magnetic attraction, and at a time when many have avoided socializing and eating together, so does the notion of sharing a meal. Horn has said that food is his family’s love language, and that “Spaghetti I,” a painting of a bowlful of pasta ringed by forks, is a representation of his mother’s love.

"Spaghetti I"courtesy of Zach Horn

But “Cookout” is as much about painting as it is about mealtime. Horn, a joyful and accomplished painter, roots every piece here in painting’s language and history. “Night Cap” is ringed by cocktail umbrellas, but also a white rope — a clear nod to Picasso’s 1912 collage of a meal on a café table, “Still-Life with Chair Caning.”


Horn’s mix in this painting, heady as it is, is hardly Cubist. He covers his canvas in luminous teal blue. He paints over that in white with abstract expressionist trademarks: a thick, encrusted cloud (foam atop this drink?) underlined by a single, muscular swipe. “Night Cap” raises a brief toast to the history of abstraction.

In “Breakfast,” Horn paints bowls and their shadows flat on the canvas, then fills them with fabricated Cheerios. That’s fun — textured, homey, familiar — but the marvel here is the tablecloth: A stretched, layered grid, a structure that’s the home base of modernist art. Criss-crossing diagonals change up the pattern, which is at once deliciously painterly, musical in its shifts, and like gingham on acid.


Good food and good painting spring from their cultural contexts, but we love them because they bypass meaning and spark sensation, revitalizing body and spirit. That’s what “Cookout” is about, in the end: sheer pleasure.


At Gallery 263, 263 Pearl St., Cambridge, through Oct. 30. www.gallery263.com

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.