Lifestyle: Artists

Good Enough To Eat

By Sophie Overton - December 8, 2017

While East Hampton sculptor Monica Banks’ works look mouth-watering, on closer inspection they express a dark edge. It is this paradox – between familiar domesticity and the depiction of ugly outside events – that defines the artist’s current oeuvre.

Banks is a person who feels world tragedies deeply. In fact, she started making her latest subjects, porcelain cakes, in 2015 when she was still reeling from the huge human toll taken by the earthquake in Haiti. “I was making miniature bodies in poses of suffering and gluing them into shadow boxes to protect and honor these little victims,” she says. “I made hundreds and hundreds of them.” While in the process of sorting through them she realized that many of the miniature figures seemed to be covering themselves, expressing shamefulness.

So, she delved into herself to imagine what it would be like to have a daughter who was feeling ashamed. Banks has no daughter, but sons. She thought that she would help her daughter acknowledge her feelings and advise to her look at them without judgment.  “It would be really funny to bake my daughter a cake and call it the ‘Shame Cake.’ If you bring it into the open and bake a cake you are taking away a lot of what’s miserable about it.”

“When someone retires, or has a birthday or anniversary, you order or bake a cake,” she says. “Even the tragedies and low moments deserve acknowledgment.”   

For her first cake, she arranged the figures on top in a Busby Berkeley formation “to deepen the paradox.” But instead of calling it ‘Shame,’ she called it ‘Exultation.’ “I try not to tell people how to feel about the work.”

Leading up to last year’s presidential election the artist was feeling hopeful that we would elect “a progressive woman president,” so she started making her cake called ‘Promise’ with that in mind. She began with abstract shapes that reminded her of shaved chocolate before those shapes morphed into flower petals to mirror “the blossoming of the country.”

The petals then became butterflies, which she planned to place atop the cake as they took flight to represent the metamorphosis “that would bring us to a beautiful future.” Alas, after the election results were tallied she stopped working on it entirely. Now “the blank empty top is an evocation of our stolen future.”

Another piece that expresses her feelings about the present administration is ‘Animal Hands,’ in which she plunged chicken feet into a cake. “I find chicken hands to be particularly repulsive,” she says remarking on the nails and wrinkly skin. “When the chicken hands came out of the kiln I was disgusted in the best possible way.”

Banks, who has been a sculptor for 30 years, has worked with many materials in the past including steel, aluminum, wire, copper and found objects. So how did she arrive at such a delicate medium as porcelain?

When she made the transition, she was working with such found objects as dead insects, birds, feathers, and bird eggs. She found that by rendering them in porcelain she had more control. “I’m not limited by things that would be too repulsive.”

Part of her works’ irony is that, while depicting negative emotions, she colors her cakes with “pretty” hues. “When I learn about an event in the world and have an emotion, my way of coping is to make art.” Her cakes, she believes, “resonate in personal or universal hopefulness.”

Banks is represented by Sara Nightingale Gallery in Sag Harbor.

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