Food for Thought

"Layer cakes," Martha Stewart's Living advises us in this month's cover story, "have always had a special emotional power." As ludicrous as that sounds, it's probably true. And that's likely the reason so many artists have used cake as material (a New York grant-giver once told me his agency had dubbed a particular season "the Year of the Pastry"). If cake is, as Martha Stewart would have it, the symbol of a mother's love, then it is highly eligible to be satirized, sexualized and gleefully desecrated, to have "Eat Me" scripted in lovely icing letters across paintings of cakes or to have representations of cakes combined with pornographic imagery, for example. But of all the artists to go into the kitchen, few have come out with works as seriously, intensely and seductively subversive as those of Lisa Ludwig.

If Stewart's homemaker is chemist, artist and diplomat, then Lisa Ludwig is mad scientist, feminist and wedding-obsessed spinster (though in real life she's married to and has exhibited with artist Joe Havel). The elaborate tiered cakes Ludwig makes would make Stewart drool, but they aren't for eating -- indeed, one is titled Pretty Poison. While the ample cakes in Stewart's magazine teeter with loving imperfection, Ludwig's tilt ominously, spiked with wooden matches instead of waxy candles. Cake is a medium that Ludwig has been exploring for some time; her current show at Moody Gallery, the too cutely titled "Frostitution," is developed out of her 1995 "Introductions" show. For Ludwig, cake has become canvas -- but as intriguing as that sounds when you say it, it's also the source of a problem. Two decorated cakes are more inherently alike than two painted canvases, and as a result Ludwig's individual works have a sameness that borders on the bothersome.

"Frostitution" is dominated by five towering masterpiece "cakes" (actually frosted Styrofoam forms) and two series of smaller works, each presented in a baker's dozen: One series consists of miniature, elaborately iced "cakes" while the other is made up of cake slices. The miniature "cakes" are, like the larger ones, made of Styrofoam. But the slices are actual, fluffy cakes; mindless of Martha Stewart's warnings of the dire consequences of ingredient-tweaking, Ludwig has removed butter and oil from her recipe and slow-baked the results to a brick-like hardness.

The tone of the show is set by Ludwig's two large Rose Cakes. Each is 28 inches high and covered in layers of fat icing roses so thick that it's difficult to tell where one layer ends and the next begins. These Italianate delicacies would be fit for a Godfather wedding, were their elegance not killed by their ghoulish color -- one is a sick, saturated teal and the other a venomous, monochrome purple.

Ludwig's work emphasizes the painstaking architecture of cake building, aligning it with the traditionally male provenance of construction (in fact, traditional cake decorations such as bows and columns are related to architectural frippery). Still, Ludwig's larger cakes have a human presence that skyscrapers do not. Tears -- a piece that, due to its elegiac tone, should be the last work you see in the show, but instead is the first -- is a seven-tier, funereal tower of Pisa. Wearing a mourning veil fashioned from threaded needles jabbed into each layer of the black cake, the four-foot Tears leans off its pedestal as if contemplating a fall. Tears (why does Ludwig have such a penchant for terrible titles?) is the negation of a celebration, a cake that needs dusting. It's a cake that Martha Stewart, bless her, would hide in the closet.

In her "Baker's Dozen" series, Ludwig is a saboteur, suggesting a subtle terrorist threat to the delicate construction of her miniature cakes. Each is done primly in white, yellow and blue, like a small town decked out for an Easter celebration. Into each, the artist has embedded unlit matches, little land mines waiting to be sparked. Operating much the same way as the tiny eggs and birth control pills Ludwig used to decorate earlier cake works, the matches add a formal and symbolic oomph to a too-pretty series. Thirteen of these little beauties should be plenty, but for Ludwig, unfortunately, it's not: She milks her idea in Pretty Poison, a large black cake with match-head florets.

The "Endless Summer" series -- which consists of 13 doublewide slices of a giant three-layer cake, each petrifying in its individual glass vitrine -- contains the show's most powerful works. The flesh of the cake is an angry red velvet; slabs of thick, white icing slide off the sides of the pieces into creamy, frilly puddles. The layers of each piece sit slightly askew, tectonically dislodged. These servings, no matter how generous, glower with a mildly paranoid housewife subtext; the title itself suggests not the idylls of the Beach Boys album of the same name, but entrapment and boredom. These works have the deliberate bitterness of a Sylvia Plath poem. Plath stuck her head in the oven; Ludwig substituted a cake.

Ludwig's choice is more productive, to be sure. In fact, the artist has provided a literal feast for the eyes. In doing so, she does what art supposedly ought to do in the same way a housewife puts dinner on the table every night. But there again is that inarguable subversion: Ludwig's cakes as art are the very opposite of food.

"Frostitution" is on view through May 24 at Moody Gallery, 2815 Colquitt, 526-9911.

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Shaila Dewan