Chocolate: A Photography Exhibition
San Antonio Museum of Art
Through January 11, 2009
by Wendy Atwell
Even if you’re a chocoholic, you can get sick of it sometimes. Chocolate is a rich and often cloying source. Real chocolate engages the sensibilities; junk chocolate is waste. The same may be said for chocolate as metaphor. What distinguishes the subtle and nuanced from the cliché? Thankfully, curator David Rubin knows the difference. In his current show Chocolate: A Photography Exhibition at the San Antonio Museum of Art, four artists use chocolate as a medium in conceptual photography. And through the medium, these artists—Chuck Ramirez, Vik Muniz, Priscilla Monge, and Frédéric Lebain—obtain rich metaphors.
Ramirez’s Candy Tray Series (2002) holds up beautifully in a show with other conceptual photography, because he gets so much mileage from the simplicity of his choice of object. Against a crisp white background, Ramirez photographs empty candy trays, from the glistening gold Godiva plastic molds with varying, provocative shapes, to Dark Heart, a more anonymous, dark brown heart shaped candy tray. A sense of loss pervades Ramirez’s photographs, much like the candy piles of Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Ramirez’s photographs offer visual poetry. What could be more perfect than an empty candy tray to stand as a haunting reminder of desire, consumption, and loss?
Lebain’s chocolate-coated reel-to-reel recorder, Apple computer, telephone and record player also play with the viewer’s sense of desire, in this case for technological objects. Consequently, Lebain thwarts desire; who wants to lick an outdated machine? Cast in chocolate, the machines’ obsolescence doubles; they are not only useless but rendered even more so by their chocolate coating. It must be a painstaking process for Lebain, who lives in Asnieres, France, and was trained as a chef, to airbrush melted chocolate over the chilled machines. This process demonstrates the art’s absorptive quality. The texture, and monochromatic soft rich brown draw the viewer in; this may also stand as an example of how they hold human attention, the hours spent manipulating and working them both in their first life as consumer goods, and second life as art.
Chocolate dominates the Western palate as an aphrodisiac and an object of consumption. Monge, who lives and works in Costa Rica, conflates these two aspects with artifacts and imagery from the Catholic church. A chocolate-coated Virgin, group of angels, and a scene of the Last Supper humorously play with Monge’s ironic combination. The Last Supper scene is chocolate over Endura metallic paper. A chocolate-coated baby Jesus, as from a crèche, lies nestled in some green moss. Somehow, he looks both grotesque (the flesh color shows through the chocolate coating) and delicious (a chocolate coated morsel; we never mind eating the Easter bunny’s ears), and this has its own horrific connotations. But the veil of chocolate coating the Madonna mutes her iconographic power.
The drizzled chocolate syrup with which Muniz composes imagery has the least to do with chocolate itself. In Action Photo II, After Hans Namuth, Muniz uses chocolate syrup drizzled over a light box to compose an image of Jackson Pollock at work on one of his drip paintings. Muniz’s choice of chocolate effectively empties out the image of its meaning, and then fills it back up again with his own, which is about artistic choice, a satirical and playful manipulation of imagery. This leads the viewer to perceive what is normally taken for granted in popular culture images.
The chocolate art in this exhibition possesses a crispness of image, glossy and colorful, the perfected presentation of advertisements. Yet this sophistication is belied by its content. Successful conceptual photography depends on cleverness, subtle twists of the norms: for example, it is the wide angle lens of Andreas Gursky’s photographs of massive trash heaps, or endless aisles of consumer goods, which transforms the images from documentary to powerful commentary. Similarly, it is the chocolate in these photographs which makes them no longer transparent offerings of desirable consumer goods but instead opaque conundrums that stall the viewer into contemplation.
Wendy Atwell received her M.A. in Art History and Criticism from The University of Texas at San Antonio.