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Sunday, May 12, 2019

Like Sugar at Tang Teaching Museum

Installation shot of Like Sugar at Skidmore College's Tang Teaching Museum
photograph by Arthur Evans
The exhibition Like Sugar, on view through June 23 at Skidmore College's Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery in Saratoga Springs, is an unusually thought-provoking show that, like its namesake, still somehow comes off seeming insubstantial.

Organized by the Tang's Malloy Curator Rachel Seligman and Skidmore English professor Sarah Goodwin, with input from three other Skidmore faculty members, Like Sugar may suffer from the too-many-cooks syndrome, as it attempts many diverse things. Is it about art? Of course. Food? Check. History? Global economics? Advertising? Health? All of the above.

Julia Jacquette, Two Tiered Cookie Platter, 1997
enamel on wood panel
As an art exhibition, Like Sugar is a bit sparse for my taste, but it features some very good work. Unfortunately, several of the best artists in the show are represented by only one piece each, which can be frustrating. On the plus side, while the show has very much to say, it doesn't overwhelm the viewer with didactic panels or unbearable preachiness - it manages to maintain a light playful tone despite the deadly seriousness of its content.

I think the show makes plain just how conflicted we are as a society - and individually - about sugar. It's killing us, but we love it. Historically, the sugar trade drove the creation and growth of the horror of the slave trade. This is delved into through visceral works by Kara Walker and Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, and alluded to in historical and contemporary documentary photographs also in the exhibition. Even honey bees get some of the blame - or credit - from both the scientific perspective and the creative one, as a video piece in the show records an experiment demonstrating their preference for sugar, and three fascinating sculptures in the show are a collaboration between a human artist, Garnett Puett, and comb-making bee colonies.

Advertisement by Sugar Information Inc.
Among the most shocking materials in Like Sugar are the many mid-twentieth-century magazine ads collected and presented in a grand collage and also individually, where we can see the audacity of Madison Avenue's efforts to sell a nutrition-free, highly caloric product to an unsuspecting and exuberant post-war consumer. As a child of the '60s, I was the direct recipient of the concepts these ads promoted, and it particularly struck me that the majority of the artists in this show were too - born between 1959 and 1965, a rather narrow demographic band to see in a large group show.

Clearly, we were all affected, and the impacts are still seen in the obesity and diabetes epidemics that plague the United States today. These diseases are explored in a display of public service graphics that attempt to scare people straight off the sugar track, and in photographs and paintings that simultaneously seduce and disgust.

Emily Eveleth, Big Pink, 2016, oil on canvas
One of the strongest pieces in the show, which is used prominently in publicity for it, is a six-and-a-half-foot painting by Emily Eveleth entitled Big Pink, which employs scale, gorgeous painterly flourishes, pastry worship, and frankly pornographic effects to drive home several points at once. Like the ad pictured above, which advises eating cookies rather than a healthy lunch as a weight-loss strategy, it's creepy - and irresistible.

All in all, Like Sugar may be overly ambitious, but it got that way for important reasons. More art exhibitions should make such efforts, even if falling short is almost inevitable.

And, while you're in the neighborhood, check out a first-rate three-person show at the Saratoga Arts Center. Passing Time, on view through June 15, features paintings, photographs, and sculptures by Paul Chapman, Harry Wirtz, and Rebecca Flis (respectively). In a happy coincidence, some of Flis's ingenious cast works are made of - you guessed it - sugar. I promise you will like.

Rebecca Flis Ironscapes, cast iron, crushed red stone, steel perimeter

1 comment:

John Rowen said...

What an amazing, creepy show. Thanks for telling us about it, Dave.