Consumptuous | Shelley Miller | March 25 to April 16, 2005

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Who really likes cake? When attending a function with a cake present, do we eat it because we love cake, or is it eaten as an acknowledgment of its presence? While a cake more often than not sits half-eaten, losing its sugary allure by the second, only to be inevitably thrown away (regrettable only to whoever made it), we simply cannot celebrate without a cake. Whether eaten or not, a cake must be present. Birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, etc, these sugary slabs and lumps are meant to dazzle, to entice, to inveigle. The cake is not meant merely as a dessert, rather, it is meant to declare, “This is an extraordinary event, else why would I be here?”

Ours is a society of indulgence. We will spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a beautiful, delectable creation simply for show, for aesthetics. This culture of excess is a concern presented in Shelley Miller’s Sumptuous Still Life series. In her photos, Miller references Dutch still life paintings of the 16th and early 17th century, with their contemplations of luxury and excess, wealth and waste. Much the same way that Willem Claesz Heda’s Breakfast Piece (1594-1682) indicates moral turbulence through its teetering tableware and half-eaten oysters, Millar’s compositions of expensive, luxury objects made from cake and left half-consumed, point to a more immediate, contemporary form of societal disarray. We are no longer a civilization contemplating what to do with our excess. Rather, what can’t we do with it? We can drive it, smoke it, decorate it, even eat it. Perhaps the act of eating a Porsche is the best illustration of our gluttony turned to an incessant monstrosity.

Yet while observing this degradation of luxury, Miller also self-consciously participates in what she condemns. What could be more useless, more void of necessary function than a picture? Perhaps, in comparison to the still life paintings, one could say that Miller’s work “is deliberately built on paradox, and that the conflict between world-rejection and world ensnarement is in fact its governing principle.” [1]

- Sarah Adams (Calgary, AB)

[1] Norman Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting (Harvard University Press, UK,1990), p 117.