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No Artificial Flavors

Lisa Ludwig is cutting back on sugar, and her installations suffer because of it

Garden Ridge is the indisputable Inner Circle of Hell. Go there on a Saturday: Your eyes will sting from the tear-gas effect of vast quantities of potpourri and scented candles as you find your escape route barred by shopping carts overflowing with faux flora and fauna. Judging from Lisa Ludwig's recent work, it looks like she's been to hell and back. Sugarcoated, frost-dusted silk flowers and fake fruit create an artificial sense of abundance in both "Paradise, Interrupted: An Environment by Lisa Ludwig," on view at the Glassell School of Art, and "Stupor," an exhibition of new work at Moody Gallery.

Ludwig's sculpture has its origins in the stereotypically creative output of housewives: elaborate cakes, fetching assemblages of artificial fruit. Her early works were constructed from sugar cubes stacked into minimalist, circular, cakelike tiers. Ludwig's great-grandfather was a baker, and informed by her childhood, she segued into baking and cake decorating. Flipping through the Glassell exhibition catalog is a worthwhile activity; you get a nice overview of her cake sculptures, which are witty and subtly subversive, as if Mom baked them on the day she forgot to take her meds: Endless Summer (1997) is a red velvet cake, iced and sliced, the individual pieces displayed in Plexiglas vitrines, their thick white icing sliding down the sides in an indolent, disheveled manner. The wonderful 1997 Rose Cake (Blue) is a sloppily baroque mass of pale off-blue icing roses. A series of fascinatingly unsettling black cakes begins with Tears (1996), a seven-tiered memorial Ludwig created in response to Jerry Garcia's death. Each level is edged with sewing needles threaded in black, creating the effect of a mourning veil.

Drawing on her MFA in ceramics, Ludwig used an oven like a kiln and rebaked the iced cakes for days at low temperatures to dry them out and create an almost porcelainlike quality. The dried cakes are practically fossilized, but not completely immune to weevils and other destructive agents. The artist occasionally has been called upon to fumigate her pieces. Ludwig's gallery, in an effort to reassure collectors hesitant to purchase such seemingly ephemeral works, guarantees replacement or refund.

One bad apple: Unlike the fascinatingly ephemeral nature of her cake sculptures, Ludwig's Bleed suggests a cryogenic stasis.
One bad apple: Unlike the fascinatingly ephemeral nature of her cake sculptures, Ludwig's Bleed suggests a cryogenic stasis.

Details

"Paradise, Interrupted: An Environment by Lisa Ludwig"
Through Sunday, March 4, at the Glassell School of Art, 5101 Montrose Boulevard. For more information, call (713)639-7500.

"Stupor"
Through Saturday, February 10, at Moody Gallery, 2815 Colquitt. For more information, call (713)526-9911

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While elaborate confectionery can be viewed as an outlet for the frustrated creative female of the June Cleaver era, women today are sold a wider range of options. Home & Garden Television presents a full programming day of craft projects; Martha Stewart sets the lifestyle bar at a height unattainable for women lacking her anal-retentive team of trained professionals. Craft megastores implore women to decorate sweatshirts, to faux-paint furniture and to fashion more-natural-than-nature materials into clever arrangements. Ludwig draws on these decorative materials and moves them into the realm of fine art.

Silk flowers and artificial fruits are center stage at Moody Gallery, where her "Stupor" exhibition has a bridal theme with Miss Havisham overtones. In Procession (2001), 14 upended silk tulip bunches, in parallel rows, march awkwardly forward, their heads dipped in a long crystalline aisle of sugary snow, which is actually silica, a bug-proof stand-in. On the wall hangs a baker's dozen of bridal wreaths -- more than really necessary -- crafted from artificial cherries. Ludwig coats her objects with silica and resin, creating the effect of frost-covered fruit. The red of the cherries peeks through the dusting of silica, hinting at a lush juiciness underlying the frozen exterior. The most successful piece is Tears (2001), with two floating curtains of cascading violets. The silk petals look like candied violets or early blooms frozen by an unexpected frost, their beauty temporarily preserved but ultimately doomed by the ice crystals. The flowers create a delicate network of shadows on the wall behind. Together, the works have a poignant, tragic beauty.

At the Glassell, the work is more installation-based, with a huge field of silica in the center of the gallery sprouting three barren trees. Crystalline apples lie half-buried in the "snow." The tree installation, titled Grove (2000), complements another sculpture, Bleed(2000), in which a basket hung high in the air spills beadlike strands of frozen apples onto the floor, their succulent rosy color shining through the resin coating, a perfect prop for Eve or the wicked queen. Frosty white roses dangle from the bare branches of Rose Tree (for Lulu), which is surrounded with "snow" at the front of the gallery. The branches are seemingly bent under the weight of the ice and blooms. Ludwig has added additional branches to flesh out the tree's shape, but they are attached at odd and distracting angles. Stray silica crystals scattered around these installations crunch under your feet on the concrete floor, calling to mind the feeling of stepping on sugar spilled on kitchen tile.

A small enclosed side gallery is filled with silica; 13 tulips sprout from a furrow in the middle of this sea of snow. Dramatically lit from overhead, the icy flowers seem like they would shatter if plucked. Ludwig has created environments that suggest cryogenic stasis, but something is missing. They feel more like winter wonderland backdrops waiting for another element. Paradise has not quite been created from the hell of Garden Ridge.

You get a sense that Ludwig has more funding for her work now, and has gotten sidetracked by hundreds of fake apples, and bags and bags of silica. Ludwig's transition to more stable materials must have made her life easier -- silica in place of that roach-magnet sugar, plastic fruit instead of deteriorating cake. An artist shouldn't have to be a masochist, constantly re-creating or fumigating ephemeral works, but materials do contribute to meaning. The lurking potential for decay added a conceptual element to the cake pieces. When an artist changes materials, she sometimes has to recalibrate the entire work, scramble a little to regain her edge. It seems that Ludwig is losing something in her transition to found and purchased objects. She manages to regain it in the curtain of violets and, to a certain extent, her flower pieces, but you miss that little whiff of strangeness, or is it icing?

 
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