Crocker Art Museum / Sacramento, CA
The term forbidden fruit nowadays refers to mere guilty pleasures, but it once designated the fatal, tragic fruit of knowledge—knowledge of sex, or course, being a discovery that every generation makes defiantly, with mingled trepidation and delight. Chris Antemann’s Forbidden Fruit sculpture installation depicts that pleasure principle in action, minus moralizing; the tiny porcelain youngsters, dining and dallying, are charming and seductive, like Bosch’s naked figures in the central panel of his great triptych, but without a lost heaven or future hell waiting, so to speak, in the wings. Antemann wrote her master’s thesis in the porcelain figure tradition, and made figurines in the style for fifteen years before being offered, two years ago, the use of Meissen’s facilities and skilled artisans, resulting in an inspired collaboration.
The Rococo art of the mid-18th century, succeeding the religious dramas of the baroque era (e.g., Caravaggio) and preceding the political moralizing of the later neoclassic era (e.g., David, Ingres), is witty, decorative and aristocratic, and commonly associated today with the artifice and pomp of Louis XV’s court. If one later critic mocked its “jumble of shells, dragons, reeds, palm-trees and plants,” we in the late capitalist era can accept and admire its lighthearted fantasy and fanciful profusion. The Rococo painters Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard depicted fêtes galantes, with costumed figures lounging and flirting in manicured gardens, often endowed with mythological or allegorical themes. Watteau’s Embarkation for Cythera (1717), a mythological land of love and youth, epitomizes the style and worldview.
Antemann updates the elaborate, symbolic dinner settings, or surtouts-de-table, created by Johann Joachim Kändler (1706–1775) for Ancien Régime festivities. At the center of the gallery—which is decorated with pink Rococo wallpaper, created digitally—sits, atop a large pedestal, Forbidden Fruit Dinner Party (2013), a multi-part installation. The central Love Temple (2013), is a circular Roman temple or pavilion housing doll-like banqueters in various states of erotic abandon, the structure festooned with allegorical figures: three Graces and four personified seasons.
Two flanking works, Tempted to Taste and Fruit of Knowledge (2014), depict pyramids of fruits associated with the Temptation—pomegranates from Asia; figs from Italy; and apples from Western Europe. Surrounding the fruit pillars are four small sculptures, Pursuit of Love, Secluded Kiss, Coronation, and Love Letter (all 2013), based on paintings that Fragonard made for Louis XV’s mistress, tracing romantic passion from vernal urgency to autumnal nostalgia. Around this central feast table are related works: Covet, Trifle and A Taste of Paradise (all 2013); and A Strong Passion, Little Maid, Ambrosia, A Delicate Domain, and Chandelier (all 2014).
Antemann’s meticulous craftsmanship and obvious affection for this tradition make for an interesting commentary on our times, beset by economic hardship and ruling-class denial: Apres moi, la déluge. In the wake of much postmodernist agitprop flattering today’s aristocrat collectors with ironic winks, Antemann’s elegant, humorous, girl-power updates of this pre-revolutionary tradition manage, improbably, to hit a cultural nerve. They may appear a mere spoonful of sugar, tiny cousins of Kara Walker’s gigantic sugar sphinx, but their subtlety and ambiguity are seductive, and, I would say, like Kändler’s fruits, which were once made from sugar but later metamorphosed into porcelain, more lasting.