|Photo by B. A. Nilsson|
Like Sugar opened February 9, 2019, and runs through June 23. It’s a show that sneaks up on you, welcoming you with appealing-looking confectionary portraits while Billie Holiday or Peggy Lee sing the 1926 standard “Sugar.” And then you look closer. Here’s a stretch of eight magazine ads that ran between 1940 and 1956, featuring bright colors and happy faces, plugging products like Log Cabin Syrup, Baby Ruth bars, and Whitman’s chocolates. It isolates the persuasive rumble of our existence, during which few waking moments seem to pass without some manner of advertisement appearing.
Here’s a toothsome-looking doughnut with a thick pink glaze, leaning atop another doughnut and about to be penetrated by still another, in a 2016 painting by Emily Eveleth incisively titled “Big Pink.”
As Goodwin notes, “The Tang tends to be heavy on contemporary art, which means there is a heavy dose of irony, and also complexity and ambiguity. Which meant this was not going to be a message show. This was not going to be about ‘sugar is evil.’ It was going to be more textured than that.”
But the message began to creep in as the exhibition developed. According to Goodwin, many in the medical community reject the idea that sugar is an addictive substance. But that view is increasingly challenged.
|Photo by B. A. Nilsson|
The painting from the LSU Museum, “Sugar Cane Harvest, 1937,” is by Swedish-born artist Knute Heldner (1877-1952), created seventy years ago under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration. It’s an attractive piece, or so it seems at first: A wide, impressionist view of a plantation field includes a distant sugar factory, and, like an altarpiece, the view is flanked by a closer view of nameless African-American harvesters toiling in the field. Its seeming innocence teems with irony from a contemporary standpoint, but I suspect the more enlightened of its original viewers could see that as well.
Artifacts adjoin the paintings, showing us the elegance of 19th-century service in the form of spoon, tongs, caster (for granulated sugar service), and even a 20th-century cube server. Alongside is a rugged wooden box and cutting knife for dealing with the stuff in its rawer form. A 19th-century kettle reminds us of the intricate processing required before evaporative technology arrived, and Jessica Halonen’s “Confectionary Units” abstracts the issue into 69 two-pound cubes, constructed of sugar, adding up to what’s recommended as her ideal weight.
There’s a small bookshelf in an alcove sporting a number of sugar-related titles, from the scholarly to the incendiary (and sometimes simultaneously both). Among them is the book that first opened my eyes to the dangers of refined sugar: William Dufty’s Sugar Blues.
Goodwin also has a history with that book. “I picked it up about ten years ago and it fascinated me – it’s such muckraking prose. He knew that he was on to something, and he was on to something, and then the book did a kind of deep dive into oblivion. But now, especially with the type-2 diabetes epidemic, people are sitting up and saying, ‘Whoa. We have a massive problem here.’ I’ve been astonished to learn, since we’ve done this show, how many people in my circle have type-2 diabetes. One of the gallery monitors has it, and she has to stand there and smell that sugar all day long. It’s real.”
|Photo by B. A. Nilsson|
Jaquette’s painting, from 1997, is titled “Two Tiered Cookie Platter,” and presents a compellingly realistic view of a dessert presentation – but a carefully lettered caption below the platter reads, “To Inhale the Scent of Your Skin as I Kiss the Nape of Your Neck.”
“The other artist I wanted,” Goodwin continues, “was Kara Walker. She’s the point person for the way that the sugar industry is connected with slavery. Walker created a display at the former Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn, in which she constructed a massive Sugar Sphinx. In our exhibition there’s this five-foot-tall brown-sugar-and-molasses child, which is one of the many tiny figures that surrounded her eighty-ton sphinx. People said it was awe-inspiring – and chilling, because of all the racist stereotypes it portrays. She dedicates it to sugar laborers. There’s an interesting texturing of the historic past of slavery with the recent past of the sugar factory, because there was a protracted strike at the Domino factory that ended in 1997, and they decided to close the factory. She put the exhibition up in 2014 after working on it for about five years and Domino provided all the sugar for it!”
There’s also work from the Skidmore community, including “Sweet Talk,” a video presentation by Skidmore student Sanjna Selvarajan (Class of 2021) about honeybee behavior, based on a study by Skidmore Associate Professor of Biology Monica Raveret Richter and featuring the aforementioned jazz recordings. There’s a wall of photographs offered by faculty, staff, and students, all featuring celebratory events where some manner of sugar is offered. And there’s a wall of comments, as visitors are prompted with questions like How does a history of slavery inform our modern understanding of sugar? and Has sugar lost its connection with the natural world?
As Goodwin observes, “One of the things that became an important concept for us is that sugar is powerful. We have a biological drive to consume it, but the sugar industry has exploited that drive, and that started from the earliest days. There’s been a continual push forward to develop technologies that allow for producing more and more sugar. And to find new lands on which sugar cane could grown, and, later, sugar beets could grow. I thought it could be kind of compelling for students. I suspected that sugar binges are a real thing for them. But they’re not coming out about that. I’ve only had one student admit to an eating disorder. But students have been flocking to the show – and they come back!”
– knowwhereyourfoodcomesfrom.com, 9 May 2019