Jeanne Dunning

Feigen Gallery

Glistening and seductive, Jeanne Dunning’s recent photographs and videos investigate the ambivalent and loaded excesses of luxury. Like the commercial photographer who knows the studio tricks that make a plate of food look like the throes of passion, Dunning’s five large Cibachromes (The Brown, The Red, The Yellow, The White, and The Pink; all works 1996) of close-ups of various foodstuffs (speculatively identifiable as tightly cropped details of, respectively, chocolate icing or pudding, beets, baby asparagus, cocktail onions, and pink grapefruit) become abstract landscapes of a kind of consumptive desire. Using a shallow depth of field, much of these all-over paeans to moistness are teasingly out of focus, with only an area toward the middle of the photograph maintaining a rough legibility. Scale is difficult to ascertain, as Dunning’s camera tilts down on these sheeny stuffs, completely filling the pictorial field, to almost dizzying effect. Dunning uses photography to reveal its special potential to obscure even as it pretends to clarify, to make forever foreign what it supposedly makes familiar, and her work revels in the ambiguity inherent in the medium. The momentary dislocation her work frequently provokes invites a range of visual responses, all of which continue to coexist alongside whatever the “truth” of the object might be. In these photographs, pudding oozes like sugary lava, asparaguses huddle like dozens of little tongues, onions seem to metamorphose into strange wormlike membranes, and grapefruit becomes something tantalizingly alien and fearsome. Everything is in high gloss, all surfaces moist and expectant, the fluids of nature intensified. Dunning continues the examination of oral fixation and gratification in Within/Without, a video displayed in the midst of these photographs. The artist filmed a baby feeding, feeding, and feeding, continuing to eat long after she was satiated, food streaming out her mouth while she unabatedly consumed more and more. The juxtaposition of this video and the photographs made Dunning’s immersion into excess very telling, remarking on the abject greed of the never-satiated orifice, the tactility of desire in the mechanics of ingestion.

In a second video, Icing, a woman—certainly the artist, although her face is never revealed—is shown preparing a bowl of white cake icing, then carefully and methodically covering the entire head of another woman under an immaculate layer of frosting. Stroke by stroke, beginning at the top of the head and dutifully moving downward until reaching a doily around the woman’s neck, this sugary embalming is patiently enacted, simultaneously cancelling out the woman’s individuality while giving her a curious, luxurious new sheathing. Like Meret Oppenheim’s 1936 fur-covered cup, saucer, and spoon, this conjunction of seemingly antithetical elements becomes more redolent on subsequent consideration. Dunning’s coating of frosting examines the conflicted cultural systems inherent in the adornment of women, how these can at once obscure and enhance individuality. The icing here doesn’t gild the lily; rather, it makes the creation of allure a chameleonic activity, and one with (literally) suffocating possibilities. Icing concludes with the slow, deliberate washing of the utensils used in the slathering; the event begins and ends with the ritual of labor, here, seemingly, the world of the kitchen. The coating of icing is only the central act of the performance, and it takes much of its intrigue from the workerly processes surrounding and supporting it.

James Yood