The Hotham Street Ladies Serve One Up to Picasso, with a Nod to Judy Chicago ­ Blog ­ Susan Steggall

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The Hotham Street Ladies Serve One Up to Picasso, with a Nod to Judy Chicago

The Hotham Street Ladies Serve One Up to Picasso, with a Nod to Judy Chicago

On a recent visit to Melbourne I gravitated to Federation Square attracted as much by the vibrant people-filled forecourt as the grandeur of its architecture and sense of civic space. Melbourne Now was on, a vast sprawling exhibition showcasing Melbourne art, craft and design of the here and now. I was in town for the annual conference of the AAANZ 'Interdiscipline'. 'Contemporary' and 'contemporaneous' were much discussed at the conference, in keeping with much of the work on display in NGV Federation Square.

Art high, low and in between notwithstanding the very first work in 'Melbourne Now', by the Hotham Street Ladies was a brilliant evocation of high craft and humour, satire and social commentary and sheer good fun in keeping with the festive time of the year. To quote the wall text, HSL is 'a group of five friends and artists...[who] like to make art that is interesting, funny and even a little bit disgusting', and their work certainly fills that brief. Brief? Look out, if they ever decide to go into the underwear business.

HSL goes on to say they 'take old fashioned activities such as cake decorating and handicrafts, and make then fresh and new'. They certainly do this, although the 'morning after' feel to the work makes the food scraps left on the piles of dirty plates – prawns, congealed sauces, half-eaten strawberries, the jaded remains of deserts and other culinary ex-delights, cigarette buts and wine-stained glasses, all in precise detail – look anything but 'fresh and new'. Not so much trompe l’œil as parallel universe, even the tablecloths, flower-patterned wallpaper and bowl of flowers have been created/fabricated from various kinds of cake icing – fondant, buttercream and royal – with enough sugar to provide energy for a small city. It must have been a helluva party! Not quite what Judy Chicago and her feminist icon The Dinner Party (1979) had in mind perhaps but a powerful example of women’s work.

In another Alice-through-the-looking-glass HSL installation, a modest living room provided the setting for a beer and pizza night in front of the tele. On the wall Australian art, in the form of a Heidelberg School landscape and high European modernism, a startling version of Picasso’s Weeping Woman (painted in 1937, now owned by the NGV), get the sugarfix treatment.

As Andrew Stephens has written: 'The project is likely to be one of the most popular in the Melbourne Now exhibition of contemporary art for its heady mix of nostalgia and its engaging themes about domesticity, consumerism and the possibilities of artistic expression…The Ladies have long attracted interest for their street art and public art commissions and they have caused debate by entering outrageous works in the Royal Melbourne Show cake competitions'. ( 12 December 2013).

Long before the HSL artists appeared on the scene, one art historian recognised the virtuosic qualities of cake decoration. In 1995 Joan Kerr launched Heritage: the National Women's Art Book: 500 Works by 500 Australian Women Artists from Colonial Times to 1955 at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra to coincide with the launch of the National Women’s Art Exhibition on the 20th anniversary of International Women’s Day (March 1995). The theme of the launch was the indisputable (e)quality of women’s achievements epitomised by a magnificent chocolate mud cake created by the Sydney company Sweet Art. The cake was decorated as a 'skyscape' and held aloft by three female figures representing a professional woman, a classical woman and a 1950s pin-up girl. On the cake sat an oversized replica of the book together with the motto, Women Hold up Half the Sky. Kerr’s desire for such a spectacular cake was to present ‘a stupendous example of this creative women’s art as a reminder of its long and popular history’.

To follow up this initiative Kerr wrote an article entitled 'Cakes for show: the last great undigested art' (Artlink, 15 (4), 1995) in which she took as her material the Cake Decorating and Sugar Art Section at Sydney’s Royal Agricultural Show, which I quote my biography, A MOST GENEROUS SCHOLAR: JOAN KERR, ART AND ARCHITECTURAL HISTORIAN. Kerr brought to this quirky topic her academic skills of scholarly analysis and cultural-historical evaluation to write about the 'art' of cake decorating as no one, either before or since, has done (or would think of doing). For Kerr, cake decorating was a fine art comparable in skill and creative vision to painting or sculpture and deserved proper recognition. Unfortunately, she conceded, 'the very few exhibitions of traditional cakes in public art galleries have necessarily been self-conscious eccentricities presented in metaphorical quotation marks to show that the gallery is merely having fun – a tactic known as having one’s cake and eating it too'. Kerr concluded her article with a tongue-in-cheek reference to that 'cake for the masses' anecdote from French revolutionary times: 'That these same institutions have never seriously attempted to digest the great, crafty, feminine art of traditional cake decoration is regrettable…When future generations visit our hallowed aesthetic halls, let them meet cake!'

I encourage the HSL artists – all artists for that matter – to check out Joan Kerr’s work. Art with a solid foundation of art history to its home-sweet-home won’t risk being relegated to history’s basement – or in this case, pantry.

iMAGE CAPTION:  At Home with the Hotham Street Ladies (photo, Steggall, December 2013)

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