Mike Geno paints cheese. Creamy swirls of Brie; dense, mottled blues; feta flecked with pepper. "My life is full of thick paint and luscious food," he says. The journey to cheese began in 2001 as part of his MFA thesis, a reaction against traditional still lifes of fruits and flowers. "I found it all so boring that, for the longest time, it never occurred to me to paint from life." As a respite from boredom, and a way to take himself less seriously, Geno turned to kitsch, painting toys and rubber ducks that allowed him to focus on shape and color. And then came meat.
Geno proclaimed to a fellow painter that he was so hungry he wanted to bite into a big, juicy steak the way he'd seen children gnaw on rubber ducks. She laughed and encouraged him, so the next day Geno decided to buy a porterhouse steak—what he calls "the quintessential meat of meats." After the butcher handed him the steak, he quickly returned to his studio to capture its details before it started to brown. His efforts resulted in a single meat painting—followed by a sumptuous steak dinner. "I ate my subject," he says with a broad smile.
Geno hung the work in the middle of a series of toy paintings he'd become known for, not realizing how transformative that moment would be. "My peers and mentors couldn't stop focusing their feedback on that one [work]. They helped me realize that I cared more about the subject, and that resulted in a painting of a higher level." What started off as a joke, he said, "turned into a revelation."
"My process is to focus on what I find most seductive in a subject and translate that attraction to my paintings, so the audience falls in love with the same formal elements—the shape, color and texture that made me hungry."
Artist Mark Ryden wrote of his use of meat as a subject, "…There is that paradox of knowing how that scrumptious porterhouse made it to my dinner plate. We have lost any kind of reverence for this. [and] beyond the conceptual impact, meat simply has a very strong visual quality. … seductive enough to make meat the subject of a work of art. Meat is glorious to paint. It is so easy to transcend the representational to the abstract."
These dual sentiments not only resonate with Geno, they reflect the evolution of his work. It started with a birthday gift certificate he'd received from Di Bruno Bros, the legendary gourmet cheese shop and specialty food retailer, in honor of his 40th birthday. "I decided, I'm gonna go crazy. I'm gonna spend all $25 on one wedge of cheese."
At the time, he was on hiatus from painting. The economy had crashed, he said, "killing any chance of selling art," and he had resigned himself to making bacon drawings for his own fulfillment. That is, until that $25 wedge of cheese—a mold-ripened, aged cow's milk specimen called Gorwydd Caerphilly—drew him back to the canvas. "Seeing this wedge—there was something about it that made me think, 'Oh my God, you have to paint this before you eat it.'"
Geno paints other foods (ranging from donuts to sushi), but, for the last six years, cheese has been his biggest focus. "Cheese is one of the most perfect models; its texture is particularly well-matched to the way that I apply paint. And the process of painting them has expanded my understanding and appreciation for this subculture of fine food raised to the level of fine art."
Geno documents the wheels and wedges in a sunlit Philadelphia studio. Moving quickly, he works from the actual cheese, not a photograph. "Painting them directly yields better results because even the smell inspires me and helps me to get to the essence of what I'm painting. And I have the motivation of eating it once I'm done. That is pleasing."
Geno has now composed nearly 300 portraits of cheese—and eaten every model. He organizes many of these works in an interactive cheese map that highlights "the personality of the cheese, the history and the region where it comes from and all the people who are connected to it." The image and text reveal the depth of those connections. For example, an excerpt from the Manzano Blue Moon post reads: "I thought I might paint it with the wedge cut out of it sitting next to the wheel. However, I couldn't resist tasting it. When I saw how ripe it was, with that sizable drip of gooey goat cheese oozing down almost immediately, I realized I had to move quickly. When I felt I could take a quick break, I decided to eat that wedge of the wheel I cut out. It was so light, fluffy, creamy and as perfect a goat cheese I've ever had. It especially paired well with a crisp apple…"
While Geno has always valued the aesthetics of food in general, painting cheese has deepened his appreciation. "I've been treated with so much respect and love from the cheese-making community—cheese makers, shop owners, cheesemongers and cheese lovers alike—that I can't sit down to paint cheese simply to enjoy it aesthetically. I'm aware how much work and time went into its making, the lives connected to it, the community that relies on it—a community that is alive, supporting and inspiring."