Sunday, October 5, 2014

How to Turn Cake Icing into Fine Art

A Decadent World

Studio of Mara Trachtenberg

New Visions

Hera Gallery
Wakefield, R.I.
Sept. 6 through Oct. 11

Untitled 3
from A Decadent World Topiary Garden
24x30", dye sublimation print on aluminum
edition of 10, 2014
I have a strong attraction to the whimsical and subversive. Artist Mara Trachtenberg shows both qualities in her series of work entitled, A Decadent World: Topiary Garden, now on exhibit at the Hera Gallery in Wakefield, R.I. The gallery show, New Visions, also contains the work of five other members of the non-profit, artist-run arts organization.

The Politics of Cake Icing

Let's start with the subversive. Trachtenberg's end products are photographs, but they begin as tableaux made from "rice cereal treats," doll parts, and sugar in the forms of royal icing and fondant. The last two are commonly used for decorating cakes with flowers, leaves, and whatever else the baker decides to create. The subversion occurs as a result of cake decorating usually being thought of as a female activity, at least in the home, and thus a "low" art, at best. Trachtenberg turns that notion on its head and creates "high" art out of this medium; "high" and "low," of course, being terms describing the dominant culture's view of art.

Play and (R)evolution

Trachtenberg's tableaux are also reminiscent of dioramas, somewhat like the ones Captain Kangaroo had us make inside shoe boxes. So, there is a certain quality of playfulness in her work. But, also something that is slightly demonic. In the example here, the baby dolls with gold beaks appear to be either an alien life form or a mythical deity from the other side of consciousness. The same can be said about the bird-woman atop the cake/topiary. Kind of creepy and compelling at the same time.

Homo Ludens (Playing Man) vs. Homo Sapiens (Thinking Man)

In 1938, Dutch historian and cultural theorist, Johan Huizinga, published Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element of Culture. His central thesis is that play and culture have existed side-by-side in a "twin union." One might say that they have co-evolved, although Huizinga asserts that play comes before culture. His opening sentence ties in quite neatly with Mara Trachtenberg's study of what she calls the "barrier between humankind and the unknowable."

Huizinga writes:
Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man.
So, back when we were more "animal" than "human," and without culture, we played. "Play is primary," adds Huizinga. Playfulness is primary to Trachtenberg's in-between world, as well.

Free to Turn Things Upside-down

Huizinga also cites five characteristics of play, and the first is that "play is free, is in fact freedom." This brings us back to Trachtenberg making topsy-turvy what we consider the "correct" media for the plastic arts. Curiously, Huizinga did not see painting, sculpting, etc., as playful as poetry, music and dancing. He saw the "creative impulse" of the plastic arts as "always subjected to the skill and proficiency of the forming hand." What he did not consider back then, as the Wikipedia entry points out, was artists overturning the idea of what is a painting, a sculpture, or any work of art. Trachtenberg is one of those new "players" of art.

Footnote to Huizinga

Huizinga did, however, have first-hand knowledge of a brutal repressiveness, hostile to any art, or idea, not of that domineering culture. In the early 1930s, Huizinga wrote strongly against Fascism. Even in 1942, when Holland, his homeland, was overrun by Nazis, he wrote against his country's occupiers. For his efforts, he was detained by the Nazis and died in 1945, only weeks before Holland was liberated.

Play is very serious.