Summer 2014 may well be remembered as the Summer of Sugar. Kara Walker’s monumental installation A Subtlety, featuring a massive sphinxlike mammy figure crafted from white sugar opened in May at a former, soon-to-be-demolished Domino Sugar refinery in Brooklyn and quickly became the talk of the world. Nashville artist Adrienne Outlaw‘s exhibition at Atlanta’s Whitespace gallery, running through August 2, also makes use of the sweet substance. Something must be something in the air. Or rather, for Outlaw, in the food.
While Walker’s piece centers implicitly on the horrific history of sugar production and its deep connection to the slave trade, Outlaw’s interest lies more in exploring the physical qualities, peculiarities, and potential dangers of the substance itself. The bulk of the exhibition consists of works in which the artist paints a mixture of sugar and sealant on glass, metal or mirrors, forcing us to observe the crystalline whiteness of the material itself. Outlaw slathers the sugar onto the smooth, hard surfaces in broad painterly swooshes, mostly abstract brushstrokes but occasionally in shapes resembling wombs or orifices. It’s not always striking work, but it can be when natural light hits the sugar and panels of transparent glass.
But where Outlaw truly excels with sugar is in the show’s more sculptural works: lumps of the stuff accumulate in goopy clumps on other materials. There’s Lair in which sugar collects, dustlike, in drifts on the bars of a small cage, the stuff of childhood dreams and nightmares. In Leech, a tangle of thick metal wire suspended from the ceiling is caked with the sticky substance. Sugar mounds up like recently fallen snow in a Cornell-like box in Cascade. It’s in these works that Outlaw utilizes sugar’s simultaneous strangeness as an art material and familiarity as a foodstuff—its tidal wave of associations and its seeming blankness—to its best effect: sweetness and decay are married.
Surprisingly, the show’s most successful work, a culminating floor sculpture titled Swell, is sugarless. On the floor, carved into six large, white wooden blocks—the proportions and color of sugar cubes—is a red-velvet-lined blood vessel running through their centers. It’s lovely and moderately unsettling. The veins, with labia-like folds, are red but appear to be dusted with something old, powdery and shimmering. One wonders whether that’s meant to be the cosmic stuff of life in the veins, or if something so lovely might actually represent something horrifying coursing through our veins.
Andrew Alexander is an Atlanta-based critic who covers visual art, dance, and theater.