January 3–25, 2014
Pristine in its individual passages and auratic in its overall plenitude, Sophia Burke’s solo exhibition Sweet Mementos featured lustrous images depicting an assortment of delicious cakes and other confections that were memorable, memorial and altogether scrumptious. A legendary Montreal foodie who now works part-time at Cardinal, Montreal’s newest and best High Tea room, she showed exquisitely printed images of pastries and other delights. Whether tart, waffle or cherry cheesecake, these confections instantly seduced. They also made your mouth water in anticipation of baked goods you could not, sadly, actually sample.
Burke puts them out there in a simple, direct and elegant presentation that pulls the eyes into their ambit with surprising immediacy – and holds you there in an optic and palate close embrace. Formally speaking, they are inordinately spare for depicting things that promise maximum flavour. The whiteness of the images’ backdrop, almost clinical or laboratory/scientific in their minimal presentation, bears an interesting, but never enervating, echo of the work of Lynne Cohen, although here operating in another (culinary) universe. Yet Cohen is still somehow a fellow traveler. And, each confection possesses its own unique persona and resonant strangeness, like human subjects in portrait photography do.
In this confectionery heaven (all images 2013), it is hard to pick a favourite: Dobos Slice; Sacher Slice; Napoleon; Mazarin Tart; Chocolate Eclair; French Waffle; Cream Horn I; Princess Cake; Cherry Cheesecake. The documentary nature of their presentation is wildly at odds with what some weight-watching gurus would tell us is the repletely sinful nature of these offerings.
Does Burke anthropomorphise the pastries? Yes, and to winning effect. They are also brilliantly mimetic in the sense of invoking the binary necessity of mastered technique in advanced photographic practices and in perhaps the best baking the West Coast has to offer.
The video, Princess Cake, shows her grandfather baking the cake (also seen in a photograph that enjoys pride of place in the exhibition) while tapping his toes in telling rhythm to the music of his favourite artist, Artie Shaw. Burke’s grandfather used to make her this traditional Swedish cake for her birthday every year. Here is the commemorative side of the undertaking: this sweet souvenir of remembrance is a loving homage to her grandfather’s artistry. The soundtrack effectively dovetails with the video and photographs and was the music most often played in the family bakery.
Burke’s personal and family history is an integral part of this story. Her grandparents owned Vancouver’s famous LibertyBakery until January of this year. She literally grew up in that shop, watching and helping her grandfather create his famous local pastries. Burke confesses to raiding the marzipan supply on more than one occasion. Her grandfather Gunnar Gustafson is Swedish, her grandmother Liberty Gustafson is Guatemalan/Italian, both on her mother’s side. Her mother, born in Sweden, emigrated to Vancouver when she was four years old. They first had a bakery called Elsie’s in Kitsilano, before selling it and retiring in their 70s. They subsequently came out of retirement to open Liberty 17 years ago. Why? Because they were bored and born to bake.
Burke is less of an Annabelle Breakey, the San Francisco-based editorial and commercial food photographer specializing in product/still life, lifestyle and food photography – and more of a resolutely fine arts photographer like Sharon Core, that maverick savant of Esopus, NY, whose sumptuous photographs also tickle the taste buds. Burke shares with Core an aesthetic of pristine presentation and conceptual rigor. But, whereas Core’s photographs are painstaking recreations of still life works by some of the most famous painters of the genre, including 19th Century artist Raphaelle Peale and contemporary artist Wayne Thiebaud, Burke particularizes her grandfather’s actual pastries in a thematised act of moving homage, commemorative thinking and auratic amplitude. While Burke’s photographs are of the confections themselves – rather than, say, photographic reproductions of paintings – they are no less layered, exacting and inviting.
James D. Campbell is a writer and curator based in Montreal who contributes regularly to Magenta Magazine among other publications.