Maria Lassnig, “Fraternite” (2008). Oil on canvas, 59.06 x 78.74 inches. (All images by the author for Hyperallergic.)

Maria Lassnig, “Fraternite” (2008). Oil on canvas, 59.06 x 78.74 inches. (All images by the author for Hyperallergic.)

Currently at Team Gallery’s two venues, on Grand Street and Wooster Street in Soho, there is an exhibition simply titled Black Cake. Curated by Alex Gartenfeld, it includes only two artists from Team’s roster (Massimo Grimaldi and Ryan McGinley) out of sixteen participants, which puts it outside the typical reshuffling of the deck we so often see in January group shows.

What caught my eye was the arresting title, which, despite its rich suggestiveness, offers no clue to the head-spinning second and third paragraphs of the press release:

Various anthropologists and poets tell us that even into the 19th Century, in early spring certain Gaelic villages would partake in the tradition of Beltane by making a bonfire and a mealy cake. The cake would be divided into lots, one for each member of the tribe, and dumped into a bonnet. A single chunk was covered in dust, and the person who drew this black piece was pushed into the fire.

In his 1983 book The Ruin of Kasch, Roberto Calasso described the sweetness of the Beltane cake: “The nausea provoked by an excess of sweetness corresponds to the moment when the sacrifice should take place.” Calasso’s cake is a totem that declares to represent the social body, and in this respect oscillates radically between ecstatic togetherness and isolation.

How could any exhibition live up to that? While most of the works in the Team show are impressive, none come close to the Bacchanalian luridness described above.

After viewing the show, the question that kept rotating in my mind was, rather than choosing among an artist’s inventory, what if the curator had sent the story of the Beltane cake to a group of artists and asked them to use it as a basis for new work? What visions would have ensued?

The historical facts laid out in the press release overturn the accepted idea of sacrifice: this isn’t a Joseph Campbell hero’s journey of self-discovery, culminating in his (and it’s almost always his) laying down his life for an epic cause; the “Black Cake” version features some unlucky bastard unceremoniously kicked into a bonfire by his fellow villagers after they’d eaten themselves sick on mounds of treacly, mealy cake. Which view of sacrifice seems the more telling read on history?

It is one thing to unearth an anthropological nugget as the premise for a contemporary art exhibition; it is another to push the concept to its logical conclusion.

Randomness and absurdity, binging and purging, excess and revulsion; these are just a few of the associations triggered by the story of the black cake. It would have been sensational for artists of the caliber of those gathered here to explore them.

The kick in the groin and sock in the nose (“Fraternite,” 2008) painted by Maria Lassnig in brightly dissonant colors, and the luscious but bloody-minded sculpture by Sterling Ruby (“ACTS/WS ROLLIN,” 2011) — a urethane block penetrated by swirls of deep red dye, perched precariously on a Formica pedestal — come closest to serving up the equal helpings of sugar and savagery represented by the Gaelic tale.

Sterling Ruby “ACTS/WS ROLLIN” (2011). Clear urethane block, dye, wood
and formica, 50.5 x 62.5 x 34 inches.

But that isn’t really what the show is after, at least according to its publicity. The paragraph following the above-quoted passage backs away from savagery and sticks with sugar:

Black Cake is an inter-generational exhibition that examines artists’ use of sweetness across mediums and treatments. In common speech sweetness conveys authenticity, warmth, conviviality or affirmation; or just as likely, a certain dumbness, vacuousness and opacity.

That’s too bad. Dumbness, vacuity and opacity have been examined to death, while the story of the black cake opens up startling perspectives on the dank and shrouded channels of our humanness. It speaks to the irrational undertow that subverts every noble venture, the self-hatred and mute aggression that spiral into wars and revolutions.

In fact, the exhibition doesn’t seem to follow any angle terribly closely. What we see are handsome works with a heartening amount of backbone, such as Josephine Halvorson’s austere fragments of clock faces (“Clock Mural (IX),” 2012) and Massimo Grimaldi’s slide show, presented on two floor-level monitors, of doctors and patients in Sierra Leone (“Emergency’s Surgical Center in Goderich, Photos Shown on Two Apple Thunderbolt Displays,” 2013).

Massimo Grimaldi, “Emergency’s Surgical Center in Goderich, Photos Shown on Two Apple Thunderbolt Displays” (2013). Two Apple Thunderbolt displays, two Apple Mac Minis, double slideshow, dimensions variable, unique. Shown on Two Apple Thunderbolt Displays” (2013). Two Apple Thunderbolt
displays, two Apple Mac Minis, double slideshow, dimensions variable, unique.

Instead of digging deeply into the nether regions (a model would be the great PS 1 exhibition Into Me / Out of Me (2006), which explored the use of the body in art over four decades), Black Cake settles for loosely applied subtexts and worn-out jargon (the press release describes Grimaldi’s tersely moving work as “slideshows, comprising pictures of under-privileged children in Third World countries, [that] interrogate the power of the image-maker and the redemptive logic of charity.”)

Forgive the viewer who has lost the thread, but where is the lunacy endemic in the historical spectacle of kicking some poor schmuck into a bonfire because he pulled a dusty piece of cake out of a bonnet?

Black cake is a dessert from the kitchen of Antonin Artaud or Paul McCarthy; Black Cake, despite its quality, dines elsewhere.

Black Cake continues at Team Gallery (83 Grand Street and 47 Wooster Street, Soho, Manhattan) through February 17.

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Thomas Micchelli

Thomas Micchelli is an artist, writer, and co-editor of Hyperallergic Weekend.