By Julia Trjanowski MFA
Ann Goldberg’s solo exhibition Cake draws its name from a quote often misattributed to Marie Antoinette: “qu’ils mangent de la brioche” (“let them eat cake”), a popular, if apocryphal summary of the excess that defined the final decades of the French Ancien Régime. The glimmering veneer of pleasure and hedonism characterizing the works of Rococo painters such as François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard - whose decadent style fell out of favour towards the eve of the French Revolution - finds a kindred heir in Cake. Goldberg masterfully walks the line between a like, playful exuberance in subject matter, and the rigorous precision that defines her style. The glistening plastic of a cupcake box is right at home among luminous strings of tangled pearls, the sheen of a satin table cloth, and the dewy fluorescence of pink flamingos. Luxury goods and everyday bric-a-brac are all elevated on the same pedestal, united in Goldberg’s attention to detail and unwavering devotion to light. Though the subject matter explored in Cake is self-consciously Rococo, its execution is not so. Goldberg has a background in both mathematics and architecture, and her work is imbued with “an artistic exactness supported by the demands of these disciplines.”1 Her concern lies with realism, inviting compelling questions about reality and its relationship with representation.
The thriving mass of flowers that make up Marousa’s dress in Ms. Antoinette pulses with a radiant, humming energy. Highlights on rose petals, lilies, and leafy ornamental cabbages gleam with an intensity rarely observed in life. The various elements of the dress are drawn from different photographs, resulting in a collage stitched together in a rhythmic kaleidoscope of colour and light. This garden of hyperrealistic delights points to a heightened perceptual state, concerned with specific sensory details that might sooner be found in memories, desires, and the imagination. Marcel Proust’s famous tea cake, the taste of which takes the narrator and his reader on a journey through his childhood home, offers a parallel sense of gravity in the sensory experience. Goldberg’s process involves taking hundreds of photographs of a subject that draws her eye, which she then edits for “enhanced clarity, saturation and brightness if need be, imparting a deeper sense of legitimate originality.” The resulting effect is not so much a filter as it is a magnifying glass, 2 emphasizing and elevating the small pleasures of the everyday. The crystalline water droplets on a chrysanthemum invite the viewer to imagine (remember?) the chill of fresh dew, and the sculpted ripples of frosting in Pink Cupcake, Sydney are as enticing in their sweetness as a fondly remembered birthday cake.
Ms. Antoinette is also an unorthodox take on the classic vanitas, a genre of still life popularized during the Dutch Baroque period. Vanitas featuring wilting flowers, insects, and symbolic objects alluding to material wealth and the passage of time invite the viewer to meditate on “their mortality and of the worthlessness of worldly goods and pleasures.” In Ms. Antoinette, the flowers 3 appear to be alive; they have been fashioned into a living dress, climbing as they would a garden trellis. Insects feed and fly among them, contributing to the sense that this is a breathing, teeming world. Inspired by the Dutch still lifes on view at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, UK, Goldberg negotiates the conventions of the genre by highlighting her subjects’ allure as opposed to their
ephemerality. She focuses on the ways in which we as viewers and as consumers are drawn to luxury and beauty, and the relationships these qualities share with prestige and with power. It speaks not to an end, but to a continuous, active cycle of life and decay.
As is often the case with Goldberg’s work, a thread of apprehension weaves itself through Cake. She creates a quietly unsettled world in which insects hide among freshly cut ranunculus blooms, eager to propel the process of decay, and where various reflections and distortions reign in plastic, porcelain, and glass. The tonal contrast in works such as Pearls II, Ms. Antoinette, and Bouquet of Ranunculus ups the ante even further. Paper Cakes on Main in particular is a master class in eerie magnetism. A thick ribbon of silver glitter works its way around and in front of rows of photographed cakes, creating an ambiguous sense of space, which is exacerbated by the milky void of a background seeping in around them. As in Ms. Antoinette, the photographic source creates the impression of a collage of captured moments, bound in a kind of eddying motion. The verisimilitude of Goldberg’s representation circumvents the question of whether or not a slash of light on a rose petal is really as striking as it had been in life, or whether an insect had really been perched on the stem of a ranunculus the day that its photo was taken. It recalls Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, which refers to “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.”4
As an avid political news enthusiast, questions about truth and representation are at the forefront of Goldberg’s mind, urgent as ever in today’s political climate. Whether by means of questionable social media diatribes or more insidious behind-the-scenes maneuvering, reality, as an agreement we all take part in, does not function effectively as a social glue if it is being constantly undermined by those to whom we are meant to be paying attention. To Goldberg, this objection to 5 accountability and tenuous relationship with truth are representative of an illiberal, authoritarian backslide. In a cyclical shift, it is an inversion of that which took place during the French Revolution, through which an absolute monarchy was eventually replaced by a liberal, democratic republic. Marie Antoinette’s famous retreat, le Hameau de la Reine (“the Queen’s Hamlet”) was itself a simulacrum, built to emulate an idyllic pastoral life based on representations in painting and literature at the time. It was partially destroyed during the Revolution, representative of an overripe regime 6 that eventually succumbed to the weight of its own decadence. The sense of unease in Goldberg’s work is a deliberate one; she perforates the veneer of beauty in Cake as soon as she constructs it.
1 Ann Goldberg, Artist Statement, 2019.
2 Goldberg, Artist Statement, 2019.
3"Vanitas – Art Term." Tate. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/v/vanitas.
4 Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster (Stanford; Stanford University Press, 1988), pp.166-184.https://web.stanford.edu/class/history34q/readings/Baudrillard/Baudrillard_Simulacra.html
5 Jordan Bear, "Hyper-reality and Simulation & Discussion of the Course" (lecture, FAH 1463: Realisms, Sidney Smith Hall, University of Toronto, November 29, 2018). Bear’s remarks on reality and social cohesion were helpful in formulating this idea.
6 Niklas Maak, "Eurodrive: Repopulation Utopia," in Countryside, a Report, by Rem Koolhaas (Köln: TASCHEN, 2020), 51-56).