Posted December 27th, 2021 by Russ White
In her recent solo show, Monochromatic Dreams, the Chicago-based artist lays it on thick, combining her lived experience of Latinidad with the aesthetics of Rococo
The waning days of every calendar year entice us to look backward. To catalogue the year that was, to seal it in amber through news recaps and “best of” lists and Spotify Wrappeds; to judge, in their passing, what the last twelve months meant to our history and our culture. It’s a brief pause to our ever-forward march — a moment of leisurely, short-range nostalgia inside our daily scroll past the endless New.
One of the true pleasures of this past year — something that set 2021 apart from its more grueling predecessor — was seeing artwork in person again. Screens are great and all, but getting to meet objects face to face again has been a joyful rediscovery, a gift even, allowing us the chance to experience their scale and texture and presence in living color. And it’s a shame that this review comes so late, after your chance to see Yvette Mayorga’s Monochromatic Dreams at Law Warschaw has come and gone, because up close her pink cake paintings really come to life.
Armed with a piping bag and a palette knife, Mayorga lays down paint the way a cake decorator pipes on icing, creating thick, opulent, maximalist canvases that vibrate with life. They are messily precise — gooey and sensual but well-ordered and symmetrical — each square inch of canvas celebrating the stuff of life and culture with an overabundance of frosted pink detail. In between the decorative florets you’ll find flip phones and fake nails, Nikes and gold chains, butterflies and bags of junk food, all produced from the nozzle of a piping bag. They are the details of daily life, specific to Mayorga's Mexican-American experience, collaged together with loving care. Throughout these flattened dioramas, green plastic army men point their rifles and cackling snakes lash out their tongues, mixing some menace into the playful nostalgia, commemorated together as a sheet cake hung on the wall. Up close, in person, it’s uncanny. You really want to cut a fat slice off the corner and dig in. I almost wished at least one of the paintings was exhibited flat on a table with plates and forks, just to complete the illusion.
Portraits of the Forgotten (detail); acrylic piping, collage, glitter, rhinestones, porcelain, and textile on canvas; 2021.
Mayorga’s mother worked as a confectioner, and her grandfathers worked at a Tootsie Roll factory, so cake-decorating is as much a part of her autobiography as all the other details. The rendering here is crude (I wonder what the artist could achieve if she took as much inspiration from fondant as from frosting) but impressive and impactful. It creates a balancing act between the light-hearted and the laborious that pushes us to teeter on the edge of the ethics of enjoyment, to marvel at Mayorga's patient hand certainly, but also to reflect on what it took to make all of the trinkets and objects she is recreating. The exploitation that is sewn into cheap garments and cooked into cheap food; those are part of our culture as well. Right now, as I write this, cake-makers for Rich Products — which provides cakes and desserts to Baskin Robbins, Walmart, and Cold Stone Creamery, among others — are striking for better pay, an end to forced overtime, and decent treatment by their employers. One striking worker, Cristina Lujan, describes the dizzying pace on their assembly line, saying that they are expected to finish 13 cakes every single minute. Most of the workers, as it happens, are Latina.
Here you see the contemporary politics of food, labor, and identity baked right into Mayorga’s work. In an online discussion with scholar and curator Dr. Jillian Hernandez, Mayorga explained: “The lusciousness, the impermanence of frosting, is a way for me to reference the impermanence of citizenship, the impermanence of the idea of the American dream, while also talking about feminized ideas of labor, of women’s work, and dismantling that through my subject matter, which is political and powerful in nature.”
But Mayorga's interests are not limited to the contemporary. Also peering out from in between the icing is an art history lesson. In Pinknologic Anxiety, a printed portrait of Madame de Pompadour is seen on a cell phone gripped in a pair of frosted hands with golden talons, drawing a direct line between 250 year old beauty standards of the French high society and today. The painter, François Boucher, also inspired Mayorga’s gorgeous pink portraits of her mother and father, each one lovingly rendered inside an ornate, gold-trimmed tondo, surrounded by the everyday objects in their home. It's a lovely, impactful diptych, a pure celebration of each individual parent captured in the same singular home. A king and a queen in their palace, each sitting squarely in their own power.
Portrait of the Artist's Parents (After Portrait of the Artist's Daughter François Boucher, c. 1760), acrylic piping on canvas, 2020.
This is Mayorga's reimagining of the Rococo. Aside from these explicit references (as well as some sumptuous riffs on 19th century vases and urns), the work in Monochromatic Dreams as a whole embraces the period's aesthetic of excess. A French movement of art and architecture, Rococo took the stately drama of the Baroque period and doused it in an overbearing floral perfume of decorative flourish, dominating the mid- to late-1700s between the death of King Louis XIV in 1715 and the execution of Louis XVI in 1792. It was like a mouthful of cake so rich, the sugar hurts your teeth. And it was the last, long gasp of overwrought, unapologetic luxury before the doors of the Bastille were pulled off their hinges.
There was also, however, mixed among the trappings of extreme privilege, a surprising humanism to the period. In his review of a collection of paintings by Rococo artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard, New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz writes:
Rococo imparted something to western painting that had never quite been there before: the unbearable lightness and gladdening mercy of being alive, expressed in loose brushwork at small and medium scale — for the enjoyment of private owners. This wasn’t an art of kings, queens, and the church triumphant. It was first and last meant for pleasure, decoration, celebration, and love.
Rococo embodies a gleeful tackiness, a sophisticated excess that has trickled down over time, most commonly found nowadays in plastic and porcelain figurines, knick-knacks, and tchotchkes. For Mayorga, the Rococo is not distant or abstract in the least; it was part of her childhood.
“I’m referencing the Rococo in the interior of the home,” she told Hernandez. “These objects hold value although they’re made of plastic and widely affordable… These objects — this idea of the Rococo — becomes a marker of ‘making it’ in America, [of] having an indulgence within your home, similar to your car.”
Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Progress of Love: The Pursuit, oil on canvas, 125 x 85", 1772. The Frick Collection.
Fragonard’s paintings are themselves like birthday cakes: capturing a moment, setting a mood, telling just a snippet of a story. One series of large scale works, The Progress of Love, depicts different stages of playful courtship, giving a surprising amount of power and agency to the women at each painting’s center, at least for the time period. The characters are set small against a gigantic, lush landscape, rendered vertically like a portrait. Nature appears stately, voluminous, and benignly dramatic, looming in soft, cumulonimbus towers of foliage and clouds above the flush-faced actors below.
“The landscape is this place of pleasure and leisure,” explains Mayorga, reflecting on Fragonard. “Leisure is something that my family did not have much of. A Rococo aesthetic [in contemporary homes] inserts leisure into a domestic space where folks are working constantly and doing very physical forms of labor.”
Home, then, becomes “a space of dreaming, a space that can signify wealth, or [that signifies] that the voyage was worth it.”
On the floor in the gallery lies a large black and white checkerboard, the familiar vinyl kitchen floor pattern of so many houses and apartments (I had one for two years in Chicago myself). Spread out almost like chess pieces on the board are a variety of shoes — boots, sneakers, sandals, stilettos — each decorated in pink and white frosted plaster. Shoes are the quintessential metonym (as in “boots on the ground”), the go-to stand-in for the people who would stand in them. Here they reference class, age, and occupation, each one camouflaged to varying degrees in thick, pastel ornamentation. Most are in pairs, but some are alone, like the ones you occasionally see on the side of the highway, making you wonder after the story behind the object.
In another recent online conversation, this time with Mia curator Robert Cozzolino, Mayorga is explicit: “The work is attempting to monumentalize the amount of migrants who have crossed the US-Mexico border and lost their lives in doing so. Shoes are objects that are often found along the border.”
Top: Installation view of Monuments of the Forgotten (foreground) and Portrait of the Artist's Parents (After Portrait of the Artist's Daughter François Boucher, c. 1760). Bottom: Monuments of the Forgotten (detail); plaster piping, acrylic piping, donated and found shoes; 2020.
There is an undercurrent of escapism throughout the show — representing actual, attempted, and aborted escapes — made most literal in the embellished footwear in Monuments of the Forgotten. These are real items with real histories, donated to Mayorga (and in some cases decorated during community workshops) by real people. But somehow more effective, I think, are the long, pink slides cutting through Mayorga’s painted tableaux, slipping past the wrought-iron gates and around the armed army men. These slides, in the artist's words, are “a marker of being able to escape or to dream within these moments of militarization."
Another perk of seeing artworks in the flesh is that you also see them properly in situ. A painting inside a room creates a dialogue with the space itself, informing and being informed by the wall color, the lighting, the furniture or lack thereof. It creates — good, bad, or boring — a vibe. Anyone who’s ever done the math on a sixty inch center knows the impact that place in space has on a work of art. Saltz mentions it in his gushing over the Frick, remarking, “In the mansion, the Fragonards are installed — even swaddled and segregated — in a wonderful Rococo drawing room, with attendant panels over doors and next to windows. Here [at the Frick]… up close and at eye level, the work is reborn as these huge heraldic thunderous paintings, visually vehement and emotionally commanding.”
And here, at Law Warschaw Gallery on Macalester’s campus, Mayorga’s recreations of Mexican-American domesticity hit a little different. The large works are dwarfed by the gallery’s generous ceilings, and I wonder how one's experience of them would change on view in the closer quarters of, say, a bakery or a living room. In this setting though, as well as by virtue of the fact that they are Fine Art Paintings, Mayorga brings together studiously and carefully what we lazily term “high” and “low” culture — and this is precisely what has kept me thinking about this show since I saw it three months ago.
Polly Landscape, acrylic piping on canvas, 2019.
Whether we’re talking about Fragonard or Mayorga or any of the rest of us serious artists, there is a certain mystique of automatic importance. This is the "high." I’m not sure if it’s the pricetags or the artist statements or just a force of habit, but our work is elevated almost by default, put on a clean, white pedestal above the muck of pedestrian life. Meanwhile the artisans who sew our clothes, paint our nails, detail our cars, and cook our food are left invisible. If we see them at all, we might not even think to qualify their work as the "low;" that's the realm more of cartoons and kid-stuff, things you might see in a clever Pop Art painting (which, if you're keeping track, is once again "high"). We live our lives at a distance from our food, our land, our industry, and each other. The problem speaks to our embrace of the individual at the expense of the collective and to the degree to which market forces impact our imaginations. In most cases, what we eat does not have an author in the way that a painting does, so its worth somehow deflates. But food is inextricable from culture, intrinsically woven into who we are as peoples. Also woven in is our exploitation of the people who farm our food, who bake it, decorate it, and deliver it to our hungry mouths.
This year has helped me fall back in love, truly, with other people’s art. At the same time, it has also left me wondering just what the point of all these pictures is. Not just Mayorga's, I mean, but all of them we're out here making. Are paintings made to look like cakes really that much more "important” than the cakes themselves? More to the point, are the people breaking their bodies to make those real cakes actually unimportant? Surely not, right? It is something to consider moving forward, perhaps as a prompt for resolutions if I may be so bold: we are what we eat.
Right now, though, the sun is setting on 2021, as it did already on Monochromatic Dreams and on the indulgent age of Rococo before it. We find ourselves looking back on the past twelve months, on the last two years of plague, and on the decades and centuries of dysfunction before them that led us to this strange, wondrous moment. We’re all hurtling down the winding pink Barbie slide of history, past kings and queens and guillotines, again and again. We have not had our cake or eaten it, either; we are baked into the damn thing whole, each of us. And the next one is coming up fast, right behind us on the assembly line, looking pink and perfect.
But how will it taste? ◼︎
A Vase of the Century 7 (After Century Vase c. 1876), acrylic piping on canvas, 2019.
Banner image: Pinknologic Anxiety (After François Boucher, Madame de Pompadour, c. 1755) (detail), acrylic piping and collage on canvas, 2020. All images taken by the author unless otherwise noted.
Editor's note: this piece has been updated to correct a mistake. Previously, the article incorrectly stated that the artist's father worked at a Tootsie Roll factory, when it was her grandfathers.