Sugar, Skin, and Porcelain

Via Colossal, these vintage dishes covered with hand-painted ants by Evelyn Bracklow are delightfully creepy.

Dishes painted by Evelyn Bracklow

I love the way the artist mimicks the clustering of ants when they swarm a particularly rich vein of sweetness: we can imagine there must be a milky residue around the spout of the cream pot or that some sugar has gotten encrusted on the lid of the bowl because of the way the ants are piled up. These dishes are disgusting in a very straightforward definition, very similar to Aurel Kolnai’s description of the concept (which I briefly outlined in regard to Little Baby’s weird ice cream ad): these little creatures, which seem quite alien to human nature with their six-legged scurrying and bodily stacking, are creeping on objects which handle food, which goes inside us. Ostensibly the ants could get inside of us, too, if we don’t get them away and off. Disgust, as Kolnai has it, manifests with an impulse to push away that which seems gross. (Although, where bugs are concerned, many of us experience an impulse to annihilate, which Kolnai attributes to anger more than disgust.)
But at the same time–the ants here aren’t real; they are beautifully painted and cannot be brushed away; there is no danger of their interacting with us in any way. So the disgust reaction is largely conceptual and easily dissolved into a pleasant thrill, which I suppose is why the artist has no trouble selling these pieces. Perhaps part of the thrill, too, is in the contrast: glossy, delicate porcelain tends to connote gentility and class, while the hungry creatures besmirching its refined surface are associated with filth and neglect.

Of course, where class goes, so goes race and gender: delicate, feminine, and precious, porcelain and china are commonly invoked to compliment the whitest of white skin–a figure of speech that speaks volumes about the ways whiteness, femininity, and refinement have historically converged in the cultural imagination.

In fact, these black-spotted porcelain dishes stirred a memory of a sculpture I encountered in an art history class long ago: David Hammons, Fly in the Sugar Bowl, 1993. I scoured the internet and library databases but was unsuccessful in hunting down an image; this review, however, briefly describes the sculpture. As I remember, it involved the pull of a black zipper awash in a sea of ordinary white sugar in a porcelain bowl. The linked article focuses on playfulness of the visual pun: the title is a variation on the saying “fly in the ointment,” or minor flaw, but the sculpture’s “fly” is not an insect but part of a pair of pants. But like most of David Hammons’ visual puns, it is a very grim joke indeed: the sugar and sugar bowl can’t help but allude to white femininity, while the black fly alludes to. . . do you see what I’m getting at? Thus, “Fly in the Sugar Bowl” becomes a sexual joke, an allusion to miscegenation.
But that’s not all: in Hammons’ work, a racial pun tends to do triple duty. For context, consider Hammons’ “In the Hood”: preceding the iconic image of Trayvon Martin’s black hoodie by twenty years, this eerie dangling hood invokes both the threat of black male violence and the threat of violence against black men. Hanging roughly head-height, it might be perceived to loom, like danger, or to hang, like a lynching victim. In the context of this work and others like it, you can see why I perceived more horror than humor in “Fly in the Sugar Bowl,” and why it left such an indelible impression: with the dismembered zipper pull drowning in a sea of whiteness, it’s obviously not the sugar bowl that’s in danger here. (I’m not sure, but I may have encountered this piece around the same time I read Chester Himes’ Plan B, which deals with similar themes of white femininity used to justify violence against black men.)

I know what you’re thinking: Well, that escalated quickly! I don’t see so much grim humor in Bracklow’s ant-spotted dishes, which after all take many shapes and can be purchased or collected as a set, removing some of the emphatic insinuations that necessarily accompany an art history slide. But I do see her work and Hammons’s along a spectrum, and both examples reveal some of the cultural connotations attached to these tabletop ornaments and their contents.

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2 responses to “Sugar, Skin, and Porcelain

  1. Pingback: White-washing rice and other telling tales | Scenes of Eating·

  2. Pingback: Elsewhere on the Internet: Fluff and stuff | Scenes of Eating·

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