If tasked with describing Olivia Sterling’s work, I think I would have to settle for calling it “deceptive.” Of course, to anyone who has seen her work, this may seem an odd choice of adjective. Her bright, children’s book-esque palette along with her caricatured figures elicit strong responses; responses whose description – already uneasy and slippery – certainly bear a little more oomph then the more demure, if not sly, “deceptive.” But that’s just it, isn’t it? The works, with as much force and bombast, surety of composition and insouciant humor as hers, harbor dark underbellies, perhaps summed up best by the sickly feeling one gets after eating too much sugar. You want to laugh, but only before you realize that you may just be the one being laughed at – or worse, called out – at which point crying seems far more apt.
This all is just a shot in the dark – the words for Sterling’s most recent solo show at Cob Gallery, closing April 24th, come slowly, each of my conclusions revised and revised again as I process it all. Certainly, the pieces on display are her most developed to date: while her earlier work is wonderful, there is a clarity and continuity of thought which runs through the show that make their effects both singular and collective. Each work is more than capable of standing on its own, but becomes part of something thunderous when viewed together; with her works on the walls, Cob’s underground gallery becomes the eye of a brewing storm.
What’s immediately noticeable is the freneticism of these new canvases: prior works that I’ve seen tend to have single, or at most, dual subjects, but here, limbs and digits fly around, bringing Sterling’s trademark food products with them. However, they have a focused, not a flitting, effect, as the gestures and actions of a given scene are highlighted, each hand or arm working towards creation, or at least manipulation. A cake is iced here, marzipan layered there, and by working together something (usually a cake) is built.
Or is it? Building is a generative act, and taking in these works, I’m not entirely sure that this isn’t some kind of destruction. Icing and cream are smacked on, dollops flying well into the splash zone, while knives slash and fingers smear as much as they work to actually make anything. In this light, Sterling’s use of letters – often denoting color, although I think the B of The Other Cream Incident (2020) might stand for “Bum” – and the resultant specificity of her raced figures take on a much greater weight. The superficial scene of cartoon cake-making gives way to questions of (de)generation; much like with these bakers, how often does lip service towards supposed racial and social equity mask insidious modes of further marginalization? With Sterling’s letters, often denoting white skin with P for Pink, how often do changes in terminology hide the continuation – and further extension – of raced and classed taxonomies? In short, how often do we find that our utopian cake-making enterprise is falling apart at the seams, and that all we’re leaving is a bigger mess to clean up? How’s that for just desserts.
Those who know Sterling herself will know there is something of the artist mirrored in the work: laxitude cohabitates with a deep thoughtfulness that could catch one by surprise were they to be lulled into calm by her quietness. But Sterling’s ability to artistically embody both minds so fully – to be at once so bubbly and so thoughtful – is on full display here, giving credence to her art world ascendance. That is to say, so few manage to fulfill the hype, but here Olivia Sterling not only matches it, but puts it to shame.