Saturday, April 10, 2010

Let them make cake

“So many cakes. So many girls.”Dustin Wayne Harris

Cupcake magnate Magnolia Bakery recently opened up shop in Grand Central Station, the news of which excited me so much I actually clapped my hands and squealed. My roommate and I enjoyed a piece of cake there today, setting the tone for the exhibition I headed to afterwards in the Lower East Side. Cake Mixx by Dustin Wayne Harris at Heist Gallery, which closes this week, features nine close-up colour photographs of cakes and one sculpture.

I take issue with work that depends on expository text. I appreciate the supplemental role that text can play, but I feel that if a viewer cannot ‘get it’ without text in the form of a press release or artist statement, the work might be better presented in the form of a book so that the two are integrated. Cake Mixx is an example.

The cakes were made upon request and without direction by women Harris has dated. They run the gamut, with no two looking alike. According to him, they are reflections of their makers, a notion that makes me nostalgic for the television show Just Like Mom in which parents had to guess which culinary creation their child made after a disgusting taste test. Although Harris sees the photographs as psychological portraits, without the back-story of his approach, they simply read as cakes. The artist says, “Cakes tell it all” but I would argue that it is the press release that tells it all. Furthermore, the viewer is not privy to the details of the makers’ personalities or the nuances of each relationship (as in, say, Sophie Calle’s work) so it becomes an inside joke for the artist and the female participants. Even with the ‘portraits’ being named for the women who made them, it doesn’t function in a biographical way or more broadly in an anthropological way, nor does it function as mere entertainment. The press release says, “The viewer’s head is whizzing” but without the inside story, viewer engagement seems impeded. Unlike the artist—who had the opportunity for continued romantic involvement with the bakers and a vested interest in the symbolism of cake decoration as an indicator of relationship potential—the viewer has nothing at stake, no motivation to probe deeply.

The press release encourages extrapolated meaning: “Is Saran Wrap code for safe sex or daddy issues? Because the frosting is messy, she’s probably wild in bed”. Really? Let me say that again. Really?! I can relate to the impulse to cast baked goods in a sexy light, having recently finished fabric cupcake sculptures with lingerie ‘icing’ (see image below) but ultimately, I fail to see these photographs as sexy...and I’ve read Erin Bolger’s The Happy Baker, which is geared to single women wanting to send messages to their lovers or would-be lovers. At most, I can see the heart-shaped cakes as gendered because they seem like too sappy of a choice for men.

The press release verges on melodramatic by stating, “The cakes cease to be merely relics invested with all the intense beauty and suffering of memory and longing, and instead become infused with a heightened sense of uniqueness, of introspection and of self”. This contrasts the artist’s flippant attitude: “So many cakes. So many girls.” His comment strikes me as the equivalent of making notches on a bedpost. What introspection might occur is interrupted by the perplexing sculpture, Glitter Butt. I actually asked, “Is this by the same artist?” What to make of the disco-ball-like buttocks of a man with a very prominent anus? Is the message that all the concoctions come out the other end looking pretty much the same?

p.s. After writing this post, I found Perry Sanatanachote’s “Baked With(out) Love” (DNAInfo, April 2,2010), which states, “Harris admits he liked the idea of forcing domesticity and femininity on these women who weren't any good at traditional female roles.” As you can well imagine, this comment made me want to toss my cookies—er, cake.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Explaining, not complaining

“Yesterday, I overheard the train conductor say something wonderful…”

Further to reading Mira Schor’s A Decade of Negative Thinking (Duke University Press, 2009), I’ve been ruminating on the fine line between critical thinking and critical thinking—that is, critical thinking in the scholarly sense versus negative thinking. It seems that there is a perception of feminists being bitter and focusing on the negative. Chloe Angyal’s article in yesterday’s Guardian, “You’re not a feminist, but…” talks about young women avoiding calling themselves feminists as a way of “play[ing] nice”. Nice and bitter definitely do not go together.

At the risk of sounding obnoxiously self-referential, some of my own insecurities about sounding like a bitter feminist include a summary of a Laurie Simmons talk, in which I wrote, “…after writing blog post after blog post to contextualize my work in feminist art historical scholarship, will I be seen as an overbearing feminist?” And, after attending a book launch for Susan Anderson, I wrote, “Slinking down in my seat, I felt like the feminist curmudgeon, a stereotype that I detest.” Reviewing Erin Bolger's The Happy Baker, I wrote, "Make no mistake: I am not passing negative judgment" and after reading Jeanette Winterson's Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery (Vintage International, 1997), I wondered, "Does advocating for change (say, of gender stereotypes) smack of effrontery?"

Yesterday, I overheard the train conductor say something wonderful that eased my insecurities. He was telling a passenger about his grandmother who was whining about having run out of milk. When he made a gentle comment about her complaining, she said, “Honey, Grandma’s not complaining. She’s just explaining.” Everyone howled. Here’s hoping that is what this blog is accomplishing.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Wanting more of Schor

“For any cynic who has survived art school or served on a gallery programming committee, 'Trite Tropes' is a ‘must read’.”

Even though it would mean being exhausted on my birthday, I booked the overnight bus last week so I could attend an artist talk by the notorious Lynda Benglis before heading home to Canada. I’m embarrassed to admit that when I learned her talk at the New York Studio School had been cancelled, I did not act my age: I sulked for the better part of the day. And what does a librarian do to cheer herself up? She goes book shopping, naturally. I chose Mira Schor’s A Decade of Negative Thinking (2009, Duke University Press) because I felt the dark title would be a good match for my mood.

My own negative thinking was quickly abated. The only criticism I can make is that Schor’s writing is so luscious that I wanted to relish and reread each sentence before moving on, which slowed the entire experience. Her series of essays on contemporary art is so compelling that I forgot all about the overwhelming stench of urine as I began reading in the bus lineup outside Penn Station. Since Schor is a native New Yorker, I trust that she’ll perceive that as the highest form of compliment should she ever read this post.

It’s much easier to write a post about a book that makes me want to bang my head against the wall than a book that makes me want to nod my head, and Schor’s falls into the latter category. Unfortunately, head nodding contributes little to academic discourse, unless it’s to emphasize the continued relevance of a classic. Nonetheless, it’s worth mentioning that Schor’s observations and opinions rang true for me repeatedly. The book begins with 'She Said, She Said: Feminist Debates, 1971-2009'. When reading the first essay from this section, ‘The ism that dare not speak its name’ in which Schor identifies a troubling trend of women artists not associating themselves overtly with feminism, I found myself thinking, “Yes! Elizabeth Sackler spoke about that very problem at Invisibility to Visibility: Are the Major Museums Opening Up to Women Artists?” (Brooklyn Museum, March 27, 2010). In the same essay, she writes about the importance of the feminist perspective to media literacy and includes excerpts from disturbing news stories as proof. The following morning, I read the free Metro newspaper on the Go Train to stay awake after losing a night’s sleep. Rather than falling mercy to fatigued head bobbing, I engaged in deliberate head nodding with Schor in mind as I read two shocking stories: one about a seven-year-old New Jersey girl whose step-sister allegedly facilitated sexual abuse by multiple men in exchange for cash (no author, Associated Press); and the other about a convicted 27-year-old rapist from Ontario who said one of his victims should now “know to keep her doors locked” (Mattos). These are just two examples that I found myself heartily agreeing with Schor about.

The middle section is on painting. As a non-painter, I’m going to take the liberty of skipping over it in my discussion even though I did enjoy reading it. The final section, 'Trite Tropes', prompted me to vacillate between head nodding and defensive head shaking. For any cynic who has survived art school or served on a gallery programming committee, 'Trite Tropes' is a ‘must read’. Schor considers what makes predictable art just that—predictable. I was laughing along as she rhymed off clich├ęd elements to which contemporary art is prone: “On one jury in which I participated, we decided that a moratorium should be declared on family photos, cartoons, waifs…” (221). Then, as if a slide of my work had been inserted into the carousel, “underwear, childhood, dresses…” Hmm, it would seem that using dresses and underwear (or ‘intimate apparel’ as I delicately referred to it in a recent grant report) to critique childhood socialization puts me in dangerous territory. I’m too invested to change now, though.

In this same section, in a priceless essay called ‘Recipe art’, Schor facetiously establishes a formula for art world success, which basically involves combining tropes to create one-liners. Although my artistic preferences lean toward the cerebral (but not at the expense of accessibility), I was reminded of the value in one-liners from a current call for submissions for a wearable art competition taking place next month. The instructions underscore the importance of being able to ‘read’ the work from at least six feet away. If accepted, I’ll probably have between 30 seconds and a minute on the runway, so modeling a one-liner is arguably the only viable option. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for ‘Sugar & Spice’, my cupcake bra, or a variation of it. That brings me to another element of Schor's book that provoked me.

Schor subscribes to the tenet that women are still seen primarily as sexual commodities in spite of major advances. Reading this, I nodded my head once again, acknowledging its regrettable relevance even to a seven year old. Reflecting on my own work, I immediately thought of the cupcake bra and the title of my recent show, Titillate. I’m not confident that complicity and self-righteousness (i.e., my belief that I’m creating titillating work for a higher feminist purpose) can co-exist. Someday, someone may call me on it, so in the meantime, I’m trying to sort it out.

Truthfully, I didn’t buy Schor’s book because of the dark title, but rather because of its coverage of feminist art blogs, as I’m preparing a presentation on my blog for the Arlis conference later this month. As much as her coverage of the 2.0 world is exciting, it’s intimidating for me to respond to it from a 2.0 platform. The reason is that Schor critiques the inconsistencies and confusion about feminism that characterize many art blogs. I fear that mine is shaping up to be a combination of head nodding and head shaking, with a fair bit of knee jerking thrown into the mix. If Schor has focused on a decade of negative thinking in her book, in my blog I have chronicled a year of conflicted thinking. For those of you who know me well, you know I’m not referring exclusively to my art, and I appreciate your support. Thankfully, art offers much needed respite.


---- (Associated Press), “Teen, 15, charged for selling 7-year-old stepsister for sex”, Metro News, April 1-14, 2010. Print.

Melinda Mattos, “Rewriting cultural norms is the answer,” Metro News, April 1-14, 2010. Print.

Mira Schor, A Decade of Negative Thinking. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. Print.