Black Cake

Team Gallery, New York 10 January - 13 February

By David Everitt Howe

2013 (installation view). Courtesy Team Gallery, New York

Team Gallery’s sprawling, two-venue group exhibition Black Cake takes the cake for the dumbest curatorial premise ever: cake, literally. Specifically, a dense, overly sweet, Gaelic variety called Beltane that, according to anthropologists, was divided into pieces, one for each villager, and whoever received the slice covered in sawdust was pushed into a roaring bonfire. As touching and genuinely interesting as this narrative may be, its implications towards community, togetherness and the workings of society at large don’t translate very well into the show itself. Black Cake looks, more often than not, like a boring, overly tasteful interdisciplinary fair booth. Good taste is in good supply, but it’s the most uninteresting kind.

This isn’t to say that there’s no good work here. It just makes little sense grouped together, particularly when shoehorned into Food Channel- worthy declarations of relative ‘sweetness’ to which, for example, Cecily Brown’s rich, viscous, post-abstract expressionist painting The Park in the Dark (2012) is reduced in the press materials (where it is taken to ‘illustrate the allusion’ to the black-cake custom). Nor do the spindly, stretched- out, vaguely Egon Schiele-looking figures in Maria Lassnig’s Fraternite (2008) look anything like any cake I’ve eaten. Still, I’m no cake critic (though that would be awesome).

Better suited to this fun little baked-goods litmus test is Ruby Sterling’s ACTS/WS ROLLIN (2011), a large block of urethane propped precariously on the edge of a wide pedestal. Tendrils of dense, inky red dye are suspended in the resin. Its pairing with the pedestal’s equally fleshy orange and yellow tones might bring to mind a particularly decadent kind of red velvet cake, while David Scanavino’s Lefty (2013), which comes straight out of Miami Vice, evokes none other than every geriatric’s favourite dinner- theatre finish: Bombe Alaska. That tacky treat’s incongruous ice cream colour scheme of garish pink, yellow and brown is not so far off from Scanavino’s multicolour chessboard floor tiles,

Though Lefty’s flooring lacks the fun of being doused in rum and lit on fire. As for Sam Anderson’s intricate, carefully crafted sculptural assemblages of paper, wire and ethereal lightboxes, I don’t know what stupid foodstuff to compare them to, but they’re lovely and somewhat sinister simultaneously, with delicate, skinlike sutured forms and bony, canelike wood rods bound torturously with electric tape.

As entertaining as it is to write about, ‘sweetness’ as some overarching theme is bound to fail if it’s not tongue-in-cheek and absurd enough, which Black Cake really isn’t. At its most serious – as with Tommy Hartung’s militaristic footage in the videos The Bible Part One: These Words Are Alive and The Bible Part Two: Chapter Two (both 2013), or worse, with Massimo Grimaldi’s slideshows of an emergency hospital in an impoverished region of Sierra Leone – the whole conceit is not just stupid, it’s insulting.

This article was first published in the April 2013 issue.