Eye Candy at a Sweet Art Exhibition

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I caught an interesting gallery exhibition while I was in New York City last weekend — Margaret Morrison: Larger than Life. The artist paints, well, larger-than-life canvases of gummy centipedes, chocolate bonbons and other sugary delights. I think I got a cavity just looking at it.

Food is nearly as ubiquitous a subject in art history as the Madonna and child. Artists seem to have been particularly fond of the simple bowl of fruit, from the Renaissance masters through Cézanne and beyond. And the still life with fruit is one of the first subjects art students tackle. It makes sense; fruit has built-in eye appeal, with interesting colors, shapes and textures. But instead of nature's candy, Morrison satisfies our visual sweet tooth with the glossy, too-red glaze on a candy apple and the stained-glass-like transparency of gummy bears.

Many of the subjects of her paintings, which range in size from 24 by 24 inches to 64 by 72 inches, are nostalgia-evoking classics, including candy corn and giant swirled lollipops of the kind you get at an amusement park. As the exhibition statement describes, "Like high fructose versions of Proust's madeleines, Margaret Morrison's sweet treats send our mind skipping back in time—specifically, back to childhood." I know the Hostess cupcakes, in particular, transported me back to grade-school recess, the last time I didn't have to worry about calories.

Yet some of the paintings are almost scary. I mean, gelatinous gummy worms are kind of grotesque at normal size; magnified to several feet they are downright freakish. And a quartet of giganto gummy bears, so adorable at half an inch, seem to be marching menacingly toward us, bent on our sugary destruction. Or maybe I'm just projecting my own complicated feelings about sweets, though I doubt I'm the only one.

Judging from a recent New York Times article, Morrison may have captured the zeitgeist with her latest series. According to the story, Americans are turning to candy in droves to soothe their recession-beaten souls. That may not translate to sales of Morrison's canvases, since people who have just lost their retirement funds aren't likely to shell out five figures for a painting. But who knows, maybe art is a better investment than the S & P 500. In February, despite the auctioneer's fears that the global recession would hamper the art-buying market, a Matisse painting from the estate of Yves St. Laurent sold for $41.1 million.

Margaret Morrison: Larger than Life continues at the Woodward Gallery, 133 Eldridge St., New York City, through May 9.

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