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Sugar High

Amber Eagle's surrealist sucrose creations are the icing on the cake

By shining a mini Maglite into the left ventricle and peering through the right one, you can catch a glimpse of the surreal world inside Amber Eagle's basketball-size, sugarcoated heart. The work is called Mother's Milk (1999), and inside, a pair of hands reaches out of a creamy pool to clasp an udder as milk trickles down the arms. Amber Eagle, diva of sucrose, is showing her teeth-aching handiwork at Moody Gallery as part of ArtHouston, a celebration of (occasionally) cool new art in the midst of the summer inferno.

You want to eat Eagle's art, to break off pretty pieces and taste them, a response that rarely happens with other sculptural materials like, say, plaster. Before your brain can react to the visual imagery, your sense of taste is activated via memory.

Eagle has been living in Mexico, home of the macabre yet comic sugar creations of Dia de los Muertos, off and on for the last five years. A travel grant from the Cultural Arts Council of Houston and Harris County provided her with her initial Mexican sugar rush seven years ago. It was then that she began photographing elaborate cakes in pastelerías and recognizing the sculptural potential of icing.

Mexico has also, no doubt, contributed to the strains of Frida Kahlo-esque surrealism that pervade Eagle's worlds. Psychologically loaded, folk-inspired imagery can be tough to pull off in contemporary painting without looking pretentiously New Age or hokey. But sculpted in sugar, it has a campy, Technicolor otherworldliness. Eagle does have a small series of gouache watercolors on view; there's an image of a torso containing a frog, and a pair of disembodied feet running with red glitter blood. The gouache has a nice matte surface similar to that of her icing sculptures, and the glitter is great, but the tiny images have nothing near the power of Eagle's sculptures and photographed dioramas, all made predominantly from icing, with minor assistance from spray foam, floral Styrofoam and Fimo clay.

Eagle's freestanding sculptures were inspired by elaborate sugar Easter eggs containing idyllic scenes. In Monja Coronada ("crowned nun," 2002), a serene porcelainlike head in a white rococo icing headdress sits on a pedestal. Peering into the back of the crown, you can see a lush green world where a robed skeleton -- Mr. Death, we presume -- turns his face heavenward as he mows a verdant green sugar lawn surrounded by piped icing trees. He's encircled by topiary foliage that spells out "mi amor."

The piece was inspired by 17th- and 18th-century death portraits of nuns as brides of Christ with elaborate floral headdresses. Eagle has added two black dogs, which in Mesoamerican religions function as guides to escort you from the world of the living to the world of the dead. The artist pulls imagery and symbolism from a variety of sources, but an obsessive decoding is not as rewarding as simply absorbing the scenes. Her inspiration for delightfully strange combinations of images is secondary to the fascinating worlds they engender.

With their intensely saturated colors, the photographs of her sugar dioramas are tremendously engaging as well. They depict subterranean environments in which the viewer must spelunk through secret symbolic worlds. In Waiting for Rain at the End of the Rainbow (2001), clusters of candy- colored heads grow out of a cave wall with starburstlike rays all around them. They look up and stick out their long tongues to lap up the dripping sugar. In Verdure (2002), green stalactites created from massed stars and rosettes of icing hang down from the ceiling of a grotto filled with ridiculously lush foliage. Little pea-green deer stand poised on rocky green outcroppings. Practically every surface is covered with accumulated dollops and swirls of icing. If Disney decides to do a Claymation version of Fantasia, they should call Eagle.

Mucho Huevos (2002) depicts a cave of fecundity. Robin's-egg-blue eggs are extruded from clusters of Dr. Seuss-ish stalactites. A crowned yellow-orange female figure sits on a pile of the eggs. The blue/orange complementary color vibration enlivens the photograph, which seems to pulsate with reproduction.

Two sleek, frosty white human/lizard creatures recline on top of each other in Cold Love (2001). The male looks sort of confused, but the female pinning him down smiles prettily. They rest in an arctic snow cave with an icy blue pool in the floor of crunchy snow. Thick drips of white icing hang from the ceiling. (Eagle latched onto the idea of dripping icing while dripping watery sand over a sand castle.) Full bluish-pink lips emerge from the stalactites, pursing or smiling in frigid pleasure.

Eagle gives an art-historical nod and a wink with the photograph, Reclining Nude (2001). A plump, pleasantly smiling and horned she-devil poses in the tradition of Ingres' Grande Odalisque or Manet's Olympia. The insane amount of icing stars used to create the sculpture makes her look like she has a case of sugar smallpox.

Eagle combines symbolic imagery with obsessive construction skills (it can take up to three months to craft a piece) to create a singularly original vision. She's like a theologian-turned-confectionery chef on hallucinogens: The big themes of birth, death, love, sex, good and evil make small-letter appearances in her work, but like Dia de los Muertos, her sugary constructions make them all seem quite genial.

 
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