What does “decadence” mean? Putting aside the word’s basic definitions (a state of self-indulgence or a period of decline), consider how it appears in contemporary culture.
The concept of “decadence” shares subversive, detrimental traits with “gluttony,” “sloth” and “lust,” but those biblical sins have far harsher connotations. “Decadence,” meanwhile, happily teeters between the negative and the positive, equally skillful at representing moral decline and the sumptuous flavors of dessert. It’s a blurry, incomplete word, which is likely why Evoke Contemporary has titled and themed its latest show around it. The John O’Hern-curated, 33-artist exhibition includes paintings, drawings and sculptures that delve into the nuances of decadence, conventional and otherwise.
Several pieces in Decadence link the word to relaxation. Catherine Lucas’ “Materia Prima” is an idyllic picture of a nude woman sunbathing on stone steps, while Carl Dobsky’s “The Lotus Eater” captures its more immoral complement: a man also lying on stone steps, with his half-snore and nearby bottle of booze indicating that he’s passed out instead of sleeping. Lee Price’s “Strawberry Shortcake” depicts a naked woman in a bathtub, eating the titular dessert and appearing sexually fulfilled by how incredibly good it is. “Strawberry Shortcake” is the exhibition’s most conventional interpretation of its title, wrapping sexual ecstasy, gastronomical indulgence and physical decline (symbolized through consuming that delicious cake) into one understated image.
Fruit is a frequent motif. An apple is secured in hemp rope in Debb VanDelinder’s “Binding Temptation” and various pieces of fruit degenerate in Jeffrey Ripple’s “Life in September.” The muted sensibility of those pieces stands in contrast to Luigi Benedicenti’s “Solitario,” a mind-bogglingly photorealistic still life of a pastry. Syrup and yolk-like golden custard ooze from its center and berries don the top. “Solitario” personifies the deepest, truest kind of decadence, despite the absence of any humans in the picture. The shine of the custard and syrup alone embodies a latent but provocative sinfulness.
There are more playful interpretations of the theme, too, such as Heather Neill’s skewering of stereotypical upper-class decadence in “Shrimp Bowl.” White-gloved fingers gingerly reach out for shrimp cocktail, while the picture’s frame contains advice necessary for upward social mobility: “Always approach the shrimp bowl like you own it.”
But the grandest images in Decadence are its most warped—physical manifestations of the noun gone nightmarish. In David Michael Bowers’ “Flaming Cock,” a woman with a French Revolution-era fashion sense holds a cracked egg in one hand and a barbecue lighter in the other. Her torso tapers off into a cage containing a chicken, while baby birds populate a nest found in her enormous hairdo. The scene manifests as some insane, brilliant metaphor for consumption: The parental fowl is about to be burned and eaten while the young are either killed or orphaned as the woman engages in decadence at its most self-serving. Scott Goodwillie’s “Nikki’s Demons” and Clayton Porter’s “Untitled (menage à trois)” are equally captivating in their freakishness, with the former featuring hideous, mewling baby-men, and the latter a colorful wormlike figure apparently extending out of a guy’s ass as dogs fight him for possession of a captured deer.
Not every picture is striking—Ian Troxell’s “Daniel” feels like a pointless vanity portrait, and Sean Cheetham’s “TLM’s” attempts to frame a clunky Suicide Girls-esque scene as something interesting—but when Decadence is at its most relentless, it sucks the ambivalence out of the word. Sly reminders of our negatives are left in its wake: overconsumption, self-involvement, class conflict. “Decadent” chocolate cake just won’t taste the same again.