The Cultural Scene: 'Just Desserts'

The Cultural Scene is an occasional review of cultural works and happenings.

One can be excused currently for not knowing the name Melvin Marigold, but the amnesty won’t last long. For Mr. Marigold, 23, who just weeks ago was darning socks to keep the lights on, has rapidly become something of an art world sensation owing to his debut show, “Just Desserts,” which opened late last month at the Tick Tock gallery.

That the art cognoscenti have found themselves another savant is hardly worth note. Unusually, though, Mr. Marigold actually deserves every bit of buzz, every grain of praise, he’s so far received—and perhaps more. “Just Desserts” is not only a revelatory show; it may well be a revolutionary one.

Mr. Marigold comes to us from Dubuque by way of Munich, where he trained as a Konditormeister, or master pastry chef, working 14-hour days in a hollowed out beech tree, staging for the Keebler Elves. His world was desserts, the fragile beauty and evanescence of which transfixed but also vexed him. In order to capture the fleeting grace of his creations he began to sketch them, and on rare days off would elaborate on these sketches, trading pencil for pastel, napkin for canvas, constantly building and revising. The results of this iterative process are currently on display at Tick Tock.

Mr. Marigold has no formal art training, a lacuna that works in his favor. His technique is largely self-discovered, and much of it is unique. Much of it is also uniquely stirring. In Pot de Crème No. 5 (KitchenAid Mixer–media on paper) assured brushstrokes are here and there interrupted by judicious spatters of vanilla extract, which provide not only visual freshness but olfactory depth and give the piece an invigorating sensual potency. More innovation comes with The Persistence of Pudding, into the custardy expanses of which we are inexorably drawn, lost in contemplation, until being whacked over the head by a gallery assistant wielding a double boiler.

Again, this is not novelty for novelty’s sake. The show, comprising 17 largely figurative depictions of desserts in various stages of consumption, has real power. Mr. Marigold manages to imbue each piece with pure and unembarrassed force. In Annunciation we see an archangel food cake kneeling before a bûche de Noël and proffering a lily, an indication of the Yule log’s purity. The scene is richly moving, and we are instantly and unconsciously convinced of its consequence.

These desserts are no afterthought. They are the focus: full, vigorous, and not infrequently carnal. In Garçon à la Piping, a startlingly forceful meditation on adolescent pâtissiers from Mr. Marigold’s so-called Rosette period, a boy tentatively fingers a pastry bag, perhaps for the first time, hints of a sly Eros-tinged smile forming on his lips. The Adoration of the Macaron, the work in which the Sugar Cubist Betty Crocker’s influence is most clearly perceptible, depicts the Baby Macaron as an adult, fully baked and ganache-filled. Here He is not flavored the traditional raspberry, either, but salted caramel. This is a muscular and virile Baby Macaron. He is nobody’s dinner denouement.

It’s important to emphasize what a sea change this is. Dessert has habitually deferred to that lord of the table, the entrée, but Mr. Marigold uncompromisingly upends this dynamic. His show is both paean to the proximate-postprandial and also a relentless attack on what the artist clearly feels is the entrée’s unearned supremacy. What’s more, he seems to be fast gaining converts. A recent review of “Just Desserts” in the French paper Le Fin du Monde appeared under the headline, “Le Dîner, Il Est Mort!

Yet the brightest star in this show studded with them is one of Mr. Marigold’s more unassuming pieces: the beguiling Girl with the Pearl Tapioca. A young girl, maybe thirteen, wears an apron and a striking ultramarine toque. She sits facing away, though her head is turned to face us directly. Her expression is hesitant, apprehensive. In her left hand she holds a shallow dish of pearl tapioca. It is a majestic portrait, thrumming with vivacity but still decidedly mournful. Does the somberness come from the darkly shaded background, or from the fact the girl is chained to an oven? The work retains its mysteries.

If there’s any dissonance in “Just Desserts” it’s the sense that keeping up such a profound first impression is hopeless. Can Mr. Marigold possibly meet the expectations that his debut has occasioned? He certainly doesn’t lack for ideas or energy: already he is wrapping up plans for his next exhibition, “Nobody’s Parfait,” a series of photographs of abandoned ice cream. We shall see. For now, the lines at Tick Tock are long. And for a change, justifiably so.