“I go to grocery stores like I go to museums,” the Baltimore-based artist Nicole Dyer said. Dyer’s paintings and sculptures, which she documents daily on Instagram, often depict domestic objects and home goods — things you see every day but usually ignore. Lately, she has turned to replicating the genre of wellness-adjacent, intensely branded products that can be found on the shelves of Whole Foods or bodegas in gentrifying neighborhoods: dairy-free yogurt, tinned fish, and, of course, infinite varieties of seltzer.
There’s a brand of seltzer endemic to every American city, Dyer explained, the way different places have different words for soda. In Philly, it’s Vintage seltzer; in upstate New York, it’s Polar or LaCroix; in Baltimore, Dyer prefers Waterloo Seltzer, which she hasn’t seen anywhere else. “Seltzer goes hand-in-hand with the wellness phase,” she said. It’s a product that gives off the hypnotic message: “You will be better if you consume it.” The elaborate packaging of such products seems to balance out their promised healthfulness — don’t worry, it still tastes good.
Dyer’s practice emerged from her childhood. “I grew up in a very dieting-heavy house,” she said. “In the last two years, I was like, ‘Wait a minute, this isn’t okay.’ I’ve always been obsessed with diet culture, in a negative way, and now I’m turning it into an art way.” Instead of precise realism, her pieces lean into the cartoonish and surreal, an explosion of colors and textures. “The counterpoint to restriction is excess. You don’t really restrict without inevitably turning to the exact opposite,” Dyer said. “I want to make food that looks so good enough to eat that it’s actually kind of disgusting” — like the trendy desserts that are designed to be more Instagrammable than edible.
The seltzer craze is why Dyer decided to make a set of trompe l’oeil LaCroix box sculptures, as seen above, a piece from 2019 that she deconstructs in this How I Made This column. The boxes are instantly familiar to anyone who has walked inside a grocery store and seen an electric-rainbow pyramid of 12-packs. Something about the design — which has stayed the same for decades — and the diaphanous fruit flavors have made the product iconic. “I don’t even have to write LaCroix on a LaCroix box; people know what it is,” Dyer said. “You get the gradient and you get the paint splatter and that’s a LaCroix.”
Dyer collects models for her still lives, especially for food packaging, so she can copy the precise details. “I try to have the real object in front of me; it’s lot easier,” she said. “I have 20 LaCroix boxes in my studio.”
2. Cardboard & Papier Mache
First, the artist built boxes from cardboard, reusing some Amazon packaging. The sculptures are slightly bigger than actual LaCroix containers. Then, she applied papier-mache over the cardboard — a premixed powder that you add water to — and painted it white.
3. Acrylic Syringes
The design of the boxes was done in acrylic paint. To add another layer of texture, like flowers in still lives, Dyer mixes acrylic paint and then puts it into plastic syringes to extrude it in thin ropes, a technique she learned from a friend in college. “It’s just like puffy paint, but better paint quality and I can make the colors,” Dyer said. “It’s nice having these bits of freedom, compared with the very realistically painted or just more technical stuff.”
Dyer often layers materials on top of her paintings. After a trip to the Wassaic Residency, which incorporates a children’s art center, she started using stickers, gemstones, and puffballs, which she would find scattered in the halls of the studio building. “I want the paintings to be more excessive, more ridiculous,” she said.
5. Spray Foam
Spray foam creates the raised surfaces and bulbous shapes on some of Dyer’s work. The artist first found it in YouTube tutorials. “I learned how to make cupcakes out of spray foam, make frosting out of spackle, make candy out of Sculpy,” Dyer said. “I was able to make all these foods that I formerly was telling myself I couldn’t have.” The trick is you can’t paint directly on top of the spray foam; you still have to prime it with white gesso.