Matthew Gray: MULE

| THE magazine - July 30, 2013

"Matthew Gray’s show MULE uses two tons of hard candy, plywood, spray paint, and glitter to create large-scale installations that suggest extravagant window displays while questioning forms of high and low art."

MULE installation view

The main floor of the warehouse space is filled with six structures, four enormous photographs, and a Flavin-esque light box. They are kind of vulgar, but fun, and as I write, the show is not quite finished.

Six weeks before the opening, Gray set up shop in the warehouse to work on site. The whole place smells like burnt sugar, and in the far corner is a small plug-in stovetop with two burners, a few large, stainless steel crockpots, and a dozen handmade, food-safe latex molds. Everything is covered in a molten black encrustation, especially the burners, and it’s surprising there isn’t an ant infestation. This is by no means a sterile culinary environment, and Gray makes no excuses for his artistic process. This is, as he says, “cotton candy on steroids,” referring to the ridiculously colorful candy sculptures already on display somehow spawned from this mess of severely burnt sugar, water, copious amounts of corn syrup, and muddled food coloring that’s all over the floor. Gray is working against the elements, and some of the long, phallic extensions are drooping in the heat. Undoubtedly, his materials lack sophistication, but that is kind of the point. Most of them can be found in aisle nine of the local grocery store or at a truck stop, and this fact makes the artist proud. A wad of neon yellow chewing gum is stuck to the base of the central sculpture, a seven-foot-tall mule. Gray’s basic, unrefined plywood structures are merely stages for his candied fanfare. Two-by-fours project off the mule and form its body and raised platform, all of it spray-painted with hot pink, yellow, orange, green, and blue in a shock of eighties neon that’s engulfed by peculiar candied objects and an overall dusting of glitter.

Poured from an extensive collection of found objects, Gray’s latex molds fashion jewel-toned crystalized replicas of Chanel perfume bottles, Manolo Blahnik heels, travel shampoos, vintage Coca-Cola bottles, tires, axes, limes, and more. Most of the candy is edible and any intent for inciting oral fantasy is barely subsidiary. These are objects of desire, and when made literally consumable they are very hard to resist. A blue and red, opalescent, sugary, Chanel perfume bottle begs to be licked or groped. Sucking on something artificially lustrous is kind of sexy—a strawberry-flavored hard candy turns your tongue redder. Display it between your teeth and it becomes a gemstone that entices. The often-shiny, crinkly wrappings, magnified and idealized by Koons, are like tinsel and reminiscent of late-night parties or something a little taboo and possibly bad for you. Gray’s larger-than-life photograph of a candied Chanel bottle, framed by a border of sparkly black car enamel, looks like an ad on steroids.

Matthew Gray, MULE: Lollipops, C-print on Dibond, 64” x 48”, 2013

Using food isn’t anything new: and Vik Muniz, Janine Antoni, and Marina Abramovicć are some of the most notable artists to indulge in sweets. Félix González-Torres is probably the most well known for specifically using candy, and in his piece, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) (1991), he piled one hundred and seventy-five pounds of candy in a corner to symbolize his deceased partner and invited visitors to take a piece from the pile. Eating the food depleted the pile, which was then replenished. Candy served as communion and offered a delicate demonstration of love and even prosperity. The back wall of MULE boasts a forty-foot-long-by-sixteen-foot- high display of candied products. It acts as a sizable altar filled with stringy caramel strands that hang over the wood like waterfalls, “flower fields” of lollipops, crystalized hammers, billboard planks coated in muddy colors of tinted corn syrup, and more. Despite the oral fantasies, eating it is not the point, and the show teases with the anticipation of wanting. González-Torres stressed that all art is political, an assertion that seems truer today, and Gray’s installations are nearly a site of protest against societal consumption.

Gray is a seasoned artist who’s been showing his work for twenty years across the globe with pieces in a number of impressive collections. Installations like MULE are merely fodder for his photographs, which are the saleable object. It is perhaps unfortunate that Gray monetizes the work at all, considering his taste for nearly offensive forms of low art. Then again, it is this juxtaposition of high and low that gets Gray really excited. Local artist Nic Nicosia also creates elaborate installations for his photos, but somehow his sets don’t suggest Studio 54 and uppers. MULE’s impossibly bright colors, harsh floodlights, and glittery chaos make the staging feel like the fun part, but Gray’s sweet tooth is decidedly ephemeral. After the show is over and the work is photographed, Gray will boil down the salvageable candy for reuse. In attempts at preservation, some pieces are varnished with an inedible coating, so lick with caution.