There is something existentially terrifying about American big-box grocery stores. Maybe it’s just me. Shamefully, I have melted down in more than a few ginormous supermarkets across the country, sniping at family members over muffins and abandoning shopping baskets in the cereal aisle in a panic. I know I’ve fashioned myself as a supporter of everything overblown about the United States, but the sprawl of typical American grocery stores shakes me to my very core. It might be the eye-throbbing fluorescent lighting, or those reflective slate grey floors, or the sheer enormity of repetition with aisle after aisle, shelf after shelf, full of every consumer product anyone could ever wish for. Or it might be the fact that, for much of the country, the people who work at these stores are relegated to an hourly salary based on the federal minimum wage at $7.25 an hour, which makes the excess on the shelves inaccessible to the people that stocked them. And sure, not all grocery store employees are at the lowest rung of this salary ladder but if a cashier manages to eke out a raise, they’ll make, what, a whole $9/hour? Windfall!
One of the states where minimum wage remains consistent with the fed’s criminally cheapskate policy (and has remained so since 2008) is Oklahoma. That grim financial reality, which answers Christiane Amanpour and Nobel Prize-winning economist/idiot Paul Krugman’s recent confusion about the “peculiar disconnect” behind Americans’ pessimism on the economy, is critical to understanding the weathered faces, tired eyes, and desperate shifts in artist Brandi Twilley’s current show Crest Foods at Sargent’s Daughters. In the exhibition, Twilley offers an expansive look into Oklahoma’s regional grocery store chain Crest Foods through a series of small-scale canvases. These paintings range from landscapes such as 7 AM, a hazy sleepy-eyed rendering of a rattling metal shopping cart maneuvering through rows of shelves before the first customer of the day, to portraits of the store’s workers, all wearing their company-issued black Crest polo, khaki pants, baseball cap, and puffy eyebags, to still lifes, like the quiet dignity of a cleaning cart, isolated to showcase its ingeniously utilitarian design.
If the latter, a painting entitled Cleaning Cart II, exudes a palpable fondness, it’s because Twilley used to work as a cleaner at Crest Foods in Midwest City, as evidenced by the inclusion of a ghostly pale self-portrait in her black uniform. During this stint as a Crest Foods employee, a store where three of her brothers also worked, Twilley began sketching the people and surroundings of the supermarket. Yet, Twilley did not complete this series until years later, revisiting the sketches in New York in 2020 and finishing them near a Crest Foods store in Oklahoma after returning to the state to recover from Lyme disease. With this lag between the sketches and finished paintings, Crest Foods sits somewhere in the invented gap between the real, imagined, and vaguely (mis)remembered.
Twilley is no stranger to blending her past experiences with present-day artistic reconsiderations, embracing memory’s tenuous grasp on truth. Two earlier solo exhibitions at Sargent’s Daughters—2016’s The Living Room and 2017’s Where The Fire Started—obsessively recreated the fast-food wrapper and neon Lisa Frank folder-strewn rooms of her family’s home before, during, and after a devastating fire (one of two fires that would demolish her family’s homes). The fire hasn’t abandoned Twilley’s subconscious in Crest Foods either. Two paintings near the gallery’s entrance stand apart from the grocery-centric theme. These works represent a quiet pastoral of a home behind a pile of scattered rubbled wood juxtaposed with a gorgeous pink and purple sunset and the shattering of its ideal—Fire in the Attic.
Obviously, Twilley’s firsthand experience as a Crest Foods worker is essential to the show’s success. Her portrayal of working-class life doesn’t derive from some rich asshole’s drive-by sight-seeing tour through 21st-century American decline. Instead, we see Crest Foods and its environment through Twilley’s eyes, sometimes rewardingly literally as in Boloney Sandwich. With the simplicity of the grey table background reminiscent of Dana Powell’s small-scale paintings, this work features a hurried breakroom lunch from the perspective of Twilley, her hand holding the simple boloney, yellow American cheese, and mustard sandwich, wedged between two slices of white bread, slid out from a cheap plastic sandwich bag, so cheap it doesn’t even have a Ziplock closure. At least for those of us who remember—or still have—broke lunchbreaks of sad homemade sandwiches, Boloney Sandwich is achingly relatable.
Even when we aren’t eating a boloney sandwich or discovering a coworker passed out on the john with his pants down alongside the artist, there is a cinematic quality to Twilley’s perspective. Several paintings depict the artist herself, from afar or from behind, as she trudges home from work, past the recognizable red roof of a McDonald’s in Walking Home or next to a highway in The Search. These works exquisitely capture the dual beauty and hideousness of American sprawl—a country largely made up of interstate exits, traffic lights, box stores, and fast-food chains. In this way, both Walking Home and The Search remind me of Jane Schoenbrun’s pitch-perfect depiction of the similarly blighted Middle America as navigated by alienated teenager Casey (Anna Cobb) in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (Is it any wonder Casey was looking for a world of dark fantasy on the Internet when this is real life?).
Twilley’s worker portraits, too, feel indebted to film, particularly in her use of central framing. Though certainly not whimsically twee like the caricature of central framing’s biggest proponent, Wes Anderson, her series of portraits bear a resemblance to Anderson’s talent for capturing subtle micro-expressions of pain from characters beset with pathologically reserved affects. Take, for instance, Sandy, whose watery blue eyes set inside bruised lids bore holes into viewers, as her tight-lipped half-grin, half-grimace strains into an unreadable expression. While Sandy stands in front of a jarringly jaunty yellow box of Cheerios, LaShay, a young Black woman in the soda aisle, exudes the most bored and apathetic gaze I’ve ever seen in a painting. Twilley doesn’t just position workers in front of foodstuffs. Many of the subjects, such as Gary, stand in front of dumpsters, identifiable through Twilley’s uniquely abstract method of portraying the waste management bins with a shiny lacquered surface that has gone to seed and rust as seen in the painting Dumpster II.
As a lover of all things trash, paintings of dumpsters clearly tickle my fancy. However, the true standout of Twilley’s show is the portraits, which are possibly the strongest work I’ve seen from Twilley whose art I’ve long admired. These portraits expertly portray the manner in which class and hard lives etch themselves on people’s exhausted, lined faces and hands, including the occasional blood blister. While writing notes for this review, I did a quick Google of Crest Foods and discovered their slogan is appropriately “Home of Rock Bottom Prices.” In Twilley’s hands, Crest Foods also appears to be the home of rock bottom for many workers. She renders the faces and necks of these workers in sickly greys, pinks, and reds, which provides a corpse-like pallor as if they’re already dead, perhaps an unintentional side effect of too much fluorescent lighting. Though the Black workers escape this ruddy moribund flush, portraits like Ronald take on a chalky purplish tone, with correspondingly zombie-like bloodshot eyes. More than just skin tone, Twilley proves herself in Crest Foods to be a master of tooth decay. From Larry to Sheril, Crest Foods presents a range of dental emergencies—nicotine-stained, jagged, and missing teeth—evidence of an inability to afford basic dental care (reminder for people with comprehensive coverage or living in civilized nations, most dental insurance is separate from health insurance in the U.S.). With so many yellowed teeth and receded gums, there is a risk that these portraits could take on an air of dismissiveness from a Yale graduate artist. But, they don’t. Instead, Twilley depicts her fellow workers with a real sense of empathy as she portrays herself as one of them not just an artist who managed to escape supermarket grunt work.
These portraits are not all Dorothea Lange Dustbowl downers, though. Some of the portraits like Cigarettes II, with a cigarette counter cashier’s wall-eyed face offering up a pack of Camels, are quite amusing in their distortions. There is a wry sense of humor that runs through the exhibition, most visible in the works that pit the at best bland and at worst dystopian environment of the grocery store against faux cheery colorful paper tags affixed to shelves like “Are You Having Fun Yet?” or bright warnings, like my preferred threat, “YOU TAKE ONE BITE OUT OF AN APPLE YOU LEAVE THIS STORE IN HANDCUFFS.” None of that flashmob shoplifting here! Twilley shares a signage fascination with Jane Dickson whose paintings are also currently on view in her show Promised Land at Karma. However, instead of fixating on classic NYC sleaze signage like Times Square porn theater marquees advertising “School Girls,” neon liquor storefronts, and “The End Is Near” paranoid placards like Dickson, Twilley picks up on the heartland aesthetics of much-needed deal announcements like “Stack it high, Sell it cheap!” or hot dogs going two for 99-cents with a limit of ten. Sometimes these discounts can lead to pathetic sights like the lonely Banquet chicken nugget meal left on the shelf in The Last Chicken Nugget Meal like a low-class Last Supper. Better run and get it!
There are many in the art world who will look at The Last Chicken Nugget Meal having never needed to rush to snatch up a nuggie meal in case they have to spend over a dollar on dinner. Granted, more and more are learning what it’s like to worry about grocery bills as everything has seemingly become more expensive with inflation, high interest rates, and the resurrection of student loan payments. This makes it interesting to consider what Twilley’s exhibition does by plopping an Oklahoma supermarket into New York’s art community. Granted, it’s not as if low-wage retail jobs don’t exist in NYC. You could find similar stories, faces, and environments just down the street from Sargent’s Daughters at the Trader Joe’s or Target on Grand Street (albeit making at least $15 an hour on NYC’s minimum wage, though it still goes nowhere in this city).
Many have pointed to the need to talk about class in the art world in addition to identity-based discussions around race, gender, sexuality, etc. But, everything in art is already about class, from affording to go to museums as several NYC museums hike admission prices to $30 to feeling comfortable enough to even enter gallery spaces to being able to work as a full-time artist or writer without a day job to managing rent on an apartment and a studio (notably, Twilley has also depicted her former illicit dual-use studios/homes in her 2020 exhibition No Living). The art world is addressing class if you’re paying close enough attention. Of course, Crest Foods does so much more obviously. My immediate response within Sargent’s Daughters was that the show reminded me of New York snoots confrontation with and admiration of “Pecker’s delicious photographs of his culturally challenged family” in John Waters’s film Pecker. This was partially because I instantly imagined Waters, a notoriously obsessive art collector, snatching up some of Twilley’s paintings. But, like Pecker (Edward Furlong)’s images of delightfully trashy Baltimore, Crest Foods provides a glimpse into lives that are rarely represented at all, let alone in oil paint. Crest Foods may portray a specific time, place, and people, but it’s also a deeply American portrait, a timely one while being mercifully free of the stain of partisan politics. It’s easy to imagine a similar yet less impactful show leaning heavily on politics (Somehow we are still not free of Trump art in 2023), but who gives a fuck who anyone votes for? Barring the lucky few (and I mean few), we’re all just trying to get by here, whether at rock bottom or home of the rock bottom prices.