As I sleepwalked through the airport last Saturday morning, my foggy haze was dissipated and delighted by an exhibit of knitted cakes near my gate.
They are by Philadelphia fiber artist Melissa Maddonni Haims. The plaque near the case explained that Haims started knitting when her mother became ill and asked for help completing a scarf. Haims knitted the scarf, some other unfinished projects, a sweater that she repurposed into a knitted seascape, and a birthday cake for herself in place of one her mother might have made her. The Cake! exhibit features a number of tall knitted layer cakes in many delectable colors–from cream and chocolate to juicy-looking reds and purples. The overall effect of stumbling across them mid-terminal is of walking up toward a bakery display of appealingly whimsical leaning confections.
For me, the cakes alluded to maternal nurture even without reading Haim’s backstory. I’m not much for fiber arts myself, but my mother has been steadily crocheting dishcloths for as long as I can remember. These dishcloths are distributed in stacks to friends, family members, and acquaintances who do the family a good turn. They’re quite useful, but if you want to get allegorical about it, they also represent a link between acts of domesticity (crochet, kitchen business) and acts of kindness. And like the mouth-watering hues of certain Pantone swatches, they link aesthetic appeal to appetite. When I was little, I thought that Peaches & Creme was the color of the yarn, not the brand; my mom favored multicolored skeins in ice cream colors–cream, yellow, soft oranges, and pinks–so they did remind me of dessert. Likewise, Haims’ cakes have names like “blueberry vanilla” (with deep blue yarn) and “strawberry rhubarb” (with fuzzy red and green trim); rather than a realistic representation of how those ingredients might look in a cake, the color tones offer an appetizing palate of saturated color similar to the visual feast offered by a box of allusively named crayons.
So this cake exhibit may appear warm and welcoming because both fiber and food have domestic and maternal connotations, but otherwise yarn and pastry are of quite different worlds–and thence emerges the whimsy. Having recently researched wedding cakes, I was struck by how these knitted cakes subverted the standard layer cake aesthetic. Decorative cakes, especially wedding cakes, are typically architectural, smooth, and sculpted. The knitted cakes are nubbly from the knotting of yarn; they bulge and sag. The gentle defiance of cake expectations reminds me of the soft foods—including cake—sculpted by one of my favorite twentieth century artists, Claes Oldenberg.
I enjoy Oldenberg’s work because it is liberally dosed with whimsy; he tends to vex our expectations for fine art and its subjects by drawing our attention to things that art usually overlooks–the small, the domestic, the quotidien. (As another example, my absolute favorite Oldenberg sculpture is the monumental clothespin across from Philadelphia’s City Hall.) Unlike the work of the Surrealist artists who preceded him, Oldenberg’s soft foods thwart our expectations of what good food and good art looks like without doing violence to them; we may not want either our food or our art to be soft, but soft things may be pleasant to see and feel, so. . . one might be less disappointed by this cake than delighted by it. Myself, I want to hug it.
If you’re curious about Oldenberg’s cakes, MOMA has a fantastic blog post about the conservation of this fifty-something-year-old piece, which includes some details about how it was made–in particular, Oldenberg’s first wife did much of the sewing. To bring this back around the Haims’ cakes, I’m fascinated by the critical difference of Haims knitting her mother’s unfinished projects and a wife sewing her internationally renowned husband’s sculptures. To compare the two makes Haims’ work seem so much more a creation of the twenty-first century despite the sweet old-fashioned aesthetic of knitted ornamental confectionary. We have the opportunity and the desire to know so much more about the work of independent local artists in this age; we can see them as part of communities and localities as much as individual creators. This Pinterest and Etsy world–this world that has revalued the arts of women and communities–has really challenged the viability of the twentieth-century artist who exhibits collaborative art as his solo work, out of context, in a white gallery. I like it.
This topic deserves more than a travel-addled stream-of-consciousness commentary, but I hope these visual treats delight you all the same.