Walking into Dustin Wayne Harris's exhibition Cake Mixx
at Heist Gallery
(through April 18), a small, sweet and surprisingly substantive show of nine photographs and one sculpture, you might think you've stumbled upon a series of bloopers from a dessert cookbook photo shoot. You might also think that Harris is a bit of an asshole: for the last several years, the Queens-based photographer has asked every woman he's dated to bake him a cake right after their first date—in two cases, after a few more dates, he asked for a second.
Each 20'' by 24'' photograph, titled after each baker, shows these gooey, sickly sweet cakes in soft-focus closeup with lush textures and stunning colors that evoke Marilyn Minter's hyper-sensual photos
, the post-apocalyptic landscape paintings of William Swanson
, and the oozing neon-pink icings and fillings of Homer Simpsons' favorite donuts
. Beyond the not unappetizing visual pleasure many of these images afford, they also form the crux of Harris's oracular theory of epicurean relationship prediction, which he puts plainly in the exhibition statement: "The way the cake looks never fails to become a metaphor for the relationship." Suddenly these images of perishable Pop art sculptures acquire a psychoanalytic profile. In a twist that can't help but evoke Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman
, we suddenly start looking for the ladies in the cakes.
Already symbols of domesticity and female labor, Harris adds more explicitly sexual and romantic flavors to his cake mix—that particularly decadent montage sequence from Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette
also comes to mind. The first of two confections dubbed "Chloe" (detail above), for instance, is a wildly excessive, gluttonous mess, overflowing with cool turquoise and bright red icing, coconut shavings, chocolate crumbs, drooping candles, rainbow sprinkles and maraschino cherries. It suggests a wild and intense relationship that probably put the couple through a bit of everything and burned out quickly, brilliantly. "Meera", on the other hand, is practically self-effacing, a subdued, circular, flat chocolate cake shot against a green patterned table cloth and dirty green wall. It's a more guarded, mature and genuinely appetizing morsel, one whose decadence is only barely apparent—at its edges, a rich white cream filing seeps out of the dark brown layers. "Erika", meanwhile, is almost too precious, a glossy and perfectly formed light blue cake with icing a darker shade of blue around its rim and base. It seems too perfect to eat, so shiny and expertly structured that slicing into it might reveal styrofoam innards or an empty cardboard shell. In an animated Disney fairy tale, it would absolutely be poisonous. At times, the accumulation of cakes runs the risk of turning into a sour, half boastful, half neurotic checklist of Harris's romantic past, like the Tracey Emin
of pastry photography.
However, by keeping himself sufficiently removed from the photographs and the narrative they suggest, these images of highly artificial concoctions are able to evolve their own organic logic. The cakes, in other words, don't depend on Harris for their meaning, but in his images they become signifying objects unto themselves. They also never stand as substitutes for the women whose names they bare, a problem that initially seems likely to give the whole series the spoiled taste of patriarchal consumption run amok, particularly given the way each work is titled. "Laryssa" (below), for instance, a Jackson Pollock-ian spiky smear of red, blue and green icing speckled with half-burried sprinkles and slicked out of shape by a layer of plastic wrap, suggests less about Harris and the real Laryssa than it does about their time together, which, following the exhibition's cakology
, must have been very emotionally and intellectually intense, not volatile so much as deeply engaged and revelatory. (The show's only sculpture, "Glitter Butt", an ass-shaped disco ball, also helps to deflate the chauvinism implicit in the dating diary format with self-reflexive deprecation.)
Finally, Harris isn't offering a playful chronicle of his dating history so much as new ways of thinking about and looking at creation, consumption, and relationships between people. Such issues are rich ingredients for any ambitious artistic career, and Harris blends them deliciously, but leaves leaves us slightly dissatisfied. Rather greedily, one wishes there were more, bigger cakes. Similar themes are also present in his previous series, all of which isolate details and discarded scraps left behind by lovers, but in Cake Mixx
they take on a sentimental and visual force that is extremely focused and affecting. The fact that he demonstrates this new discipline in formally exquisite photographs that turn mediocre baked goods into eye candy is just the icing on the cake.
(photo credit: Heist Gallery, Dustin Wayne Harris)