13 ways of looking at a cupcake

four cupcakes

Lower left, pure suck. Upper left, success so far. Other two: fear and trembling.

“I was of three minds, like a tree in which there are three blackbirds.” –Wallace Stevens

1. In the circus of baked goods, cupcakes are the clowns. A cupcake has to be the least significant object anyone could paint. It is utterly devoid of both nutritional value and any possible claim to importance. It’s a subject worthy of Fragonard with his frothy, virtuoso sense of gratuitous gesture. And worthy of his period in history, for that matter. But that isn’t the point. For all I know, a cupcake may in fact be crying on the inside, but I see no evidence.

2. Painting a cupcake forces you to focus on purely formal qualities in the image. The shape and form, from painting to painting, can be as uniform as Rothko’s horizons or Motherwell’s odes to Spain, or Stella’s chevrons or any of Jim Dine’s uniform, repetitive templates for color: his hearts or robes, for example. (Dine’s paired hearts and skulls are another, interesting matter.) With a cupcake you eliminate a whole suite of choices and have no recourse but to focus on the fundamentals: color, line, value, the surface, and the quality of the paint itself. They all do that subconscious thing they do, which you can’t reduce to some interpretable “meaning.”

3. When it comes to cupcakes, I’m no virtuoso, which is unfortunate, because that ought to be the whole point of doing them. I still haven’t learned how to paint one properly except for maybe a couple instances and I’ve been trying, off and on, for several years. So far, toward the end of the job, I loathe painting them. Early on, with the first or second coat of paint, I love it. I love the flat, simple areas of pure color. Paying attention to that early stage and letting that be the whole point would mean I have to quit doing nearly everything that has gotten me exhibited as a painter, except for the candy jars and a couple other pieces. But in those I’ve still relied on exactitude in the way I render something. If I just did a cupcake, one coat, just cartoonish and flat, all color, then what? Would I be satisfied? The spontaneity and purity of color and the lack of finish needs to be preserved to the very last stroke. But that doesn’t mean simply stopping at the flat first coat. That isn’t what I want.  It just needs to work as a flat pattern, and the color needs to feel unmolested, while the image is doing other things. That’s the challenge.

4. Emily Eveleth cheats. She piles her languid, sybaritic donuts on top of one another like exhausted lovers and suggests unpleasant (significant!) things in the way they ooze jelly. The value of the work is in the way she paints a donut, the quality of the light and color and the paint itself, not in the fact that it hints at decadence. Making it “meaningful” is just pandering to a critic or a buyer. Thiebaud doesn’t cheat. It’s about the paint, the color and the light. Nothing else.

5. For decades, my favorite painters—not necessarily the ones I admire the most, but the ones I most love to look at—have been obsessed by color, to the exclusion of anything like photographic realism. Van Gogh, Bonnard, Matisse, Avery, Matthiasdottir, Thiebaud, Fish, Rothko, Fairfield Porter and the current Wolf Kahn. The challenge is how to continue to represent the look of the world in a compelling way while adhering to color as the reason to paint. For years now I keep venturing into this region and then retreating from it. Painting nine cupcakes, for a start, is a way of forcing myself to confront the formal challenges of actually working the way those painters did and trying to find a way to ease away from arduously detailed realism toward something primarily about color.

6. When I’ve done cupcakes, and other subjects, in the past I’ve usually succumbed to the urge to simply duplicate what’s there, which is hard enough to do—and therefore pleasant labor. This work has found its way into exhibits, and it has sold. But as much as I love doing this work, and will continue to do it, it always feels a bit like a capitulation. For years, I’ve done a series of enlarged images—candy jars, flowers, cupcakes, faces now and then—in an attempt to make large areas of color work, at that scale, the way they do in an abstract. The cupcakes have been the least successful, because I’ve always lapsed back into rendering rather than allowing myself to take liberties and allow a painterly technique to yield surprising harmonies of color. Working repeatedly with a nearly uniform image may force me to back away from the comfort of photo-based rendering without losing the image’s ability to convince the viewer that he or she is seeing an actual object with a sense of depth.

7. The concern for the flat, formal qualities of paint at the surface level doesn’t mean the image needs to look flat. But keeping the flat surface uppermost in mind is the easiest way to preserve the life and beauty of color without muddying it up. Hence the challenge of a cupcake, which is anything but flat, especially that difficult icing which resists an economical technique.

8. It takes humility to paint a cupcake. Any attempt to invest a cupcake with significance . . . forget about it. One could say: a cupcake represents the frivolity of luxury, how it’s a symptom of excess and moneyed leisure, a symbol of our economic end times, the enormous gap between the pampered rich and the rest. As in Fragonard’s time. Or one could take the long view and  say: it’s Jungian, a symbol of sex, or at least the fusion of genders, with its rigid and straight corrugation of the fluted cup, the stumpy phallus of the cake, and the petals and labia of the icing. Please. It’s a cupcake. It doesn’t mean anything. You eat it.

9. What I leave out is going to be at least as important as what I leave in. Generalizing an area of value and color will be even more significant than sharply defining other parts of the image so that it tricks the eye. How to decide what to render, and what not, is going to be the crux of the thing.

10. Pun alert. A cupcake could also be compared to a Buddhist stupa. But not only is that a stretch, it would really be cheating.  It’s also hard, with a cupcake, to see the point. (You were warned.)

11. An age-old question: can a painting be so good you want to eat it? Not an age-old question? Fine. Whatever. Settle down, Van Gogh.

12. Painting a cupcake is essentially the same as painting an image of a sculpture. It’s art about art. I don’t want to hang a picture of a cupcake on my wall. But I do want to hang an excellent painting, no matter what it depicts, on my wall.

13. It takes humility to paint a cupcake. (It’s worth repeating.) The art world doesn’t need cupcakes. It could use some intellectual humility.


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