The Ambiguous Doughnut
The doughnut is a ubiquitous phenomenon in American culture and the quintessential national food. It is one of the few items in consumer culture that have their own chains, with thousands of stores marking city corners, highway exits, and the vast landscape all across the country. Dunkin’ Donuts waves at us in appealing orange and pink, while Krispy Kreme offers playful green and red in a design associated with the good life of the American Dream propounded during the 1950s. The doughnut has now even entered the realm of cyberspace with thousands of people sharing their personal relationships and intimate rituals with this fat and fluffy, sugary creation in web logs: “What donut are you?” wonders one blogger. “Today is a sunny, beautiful day and I started it out with a chocolate-glazed jelly-filled donut. What was your choice?” asks another, while one virtual voice asserts that “a fresh donut is better than sex.” The doughnut, loaded with projected desire, captures the spirit of a day. It conjures nostalgic childhood memories of a perfect Sunday ritual, or is fraught with the romantic yet amusing recollections of a first date. These wonderfully round, golden-brown delicacies are covered with a droopy glaze sprinkled with sugar like a light coat of snow—so fragile, so soft to our touch, so easily squished and bent out of shape. They are all crisp surface over puffy interior.
Emily Eveleth has made the donut the subject of her tenacious investigation for more than ten years. From the beginning, this imagery was divorced from the idea of the pastry as a purchasable mass-produced food whose endlessly multiplied generic ideal is arrayed on pastry-shop windows, as in Wayne Thiebaud’s lush paintings in pastel colors from the 1960s. On the contrary, Eveleth explores the donut’s capability to represent diverse psychological states, emotions, and moods. “I push the subject of the paintings away from the literalness of the object and towards other meanings,” she states, “that is, to find something that expresses the contradiction of object/subject.” The artist depicts only the jelly-filled donut, whose gluey red filling oozes out of the hole through which it was injected. The apertures, where the dough is soaked in red, give the donuts the impression of a face, making them a counterpart to our human form, with the fronts of our bodies facing the environment and the backs sensed by us but viewed only by others. In the first paintings of the series, in the early 1990s, single donuts prominently placed in the middle of the canvas literally face the viewer and enter into an implied dialogue with curiosity, languor, or dolefulness, their single body openings expressively contorted and hovering between vulnerability and overt sexuality. Several donuts interact in others, such as Snake Eyes where one sits heavily and pompously on top of another, squeezing its soft flesh so that the jelly seeps onto an undefined ground created by soft brushstrokes like blood from a wound. In their precarious physical relationship, the two pastries project the personality traits of dominator and subjugated, transforming the traditional still-life genre into a poignant depiction of emotional states.
Like actors in a play, the donuts become characters that assume poses and attitudes. They are staged on an imagined tabletop or other surface lacking specific reference, and are surrounded by an expansive but oddly spaceless monochromatic area of systematically applied, shiny brushwork. The artist exploits this void to heighten the psychological effect and mood. Eveleth’s subjects inhabit a semidarkness pierced by a strong light that falls on them, modeling them into robust three-dimensionality. The light striking the solid, impenetrable forms does not dissolve them, but creates a painterly softening of form. Initially, we might be inclined to believe that the artist’s lighting is realistic, that it comes from a particular light source. But just as her highly staged compositions vary in the quality of light—natural, artificial, warm, cold, softening—so do they in its directionality, allowing it to conceal and reveal the donuts and to create an atmosphere that underscores her charged narrative. In some paintings, darkness entirely engulfs the subjects in the manner of Caravaggio’s late pictures, while flickers and flashes of luminosity play over the expressive surfaces. Occasionally the darkness is ever so slightly penetrated from high outside the picture frame by a gloomy promising light that links Eveleth’s paintings to the Christian iconography of light in martyr paintings, and works that have continued this tradition, such as Jacques Louis David’s Death of Marat (1793).
While posture as a psychological device has played a significant role in Eveleth’s donut paintings to date, her newest works in the series – Rift, Repose, Pact, Truce, Reverse, and Prospect – take an audacious step in a new direction. Keenly aware of the effects of canvas size on the nature of the viewer’s engagement, she shifts her scale in a way that reminds us of Mark Rothko’s astute remark in 1951: “To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger pictures, you are in it.” Eveleth has for many years moved easily among various sizes of canvases, from 10 x 10 to 96 x 84 inches, and her paintings have shifted from depictions of complete single or multiple donuts to disorienting close-ups often inspired by cropped photographs of staged scenes. The new paintings are unusually large in format and sometimes, as in Truce, expand horizontally in a panoramic manner. Donuts are piled on top of each other like massive boulders or bodies, their tumbling movement arrested in the picture. All the works in the exhibition present sections of seemingly endless sprawling or built-up arrangements with so little space surrounding them that we directly confront their monumental materiality. The interstices between the donuts, which are distorted and held in place only by the weight and gravitational pull of the ones on top of them, tilted to the side, or pushed up from underneath, create shadowy caves and burgundy waterfalls of drooping jelly. In several paintings, such as Rift and Reverse, the donuts’ languid, heavy bodies are painted with velvety strokes and resemble greenish-blue Rubenesque nudes intertwined with each other, their red holes projecting a lascivious sexuality teetering on pornography. Five small paintings in the exhibition zoom in on these crimson openings, their associations oscillating ambiguously from bloody orifice to open wound to lush abstraction.
As in Eveleth’s earlier paintings, these compositions convey particular moods and themes that are equally evoked by their titles. Describing the physical interactions of the donuts, they focus on the areas where the malleable bodies connect and press against each other. The precarious interrelations determine the stability of the whole. Related charcoal drawings after the paintings focus on these points of contact in delicate yet assured lines. Far from being grandiose or heroic, the paintings nevertheless render visible the dynamic forces of history painting. It is a remarkable characteristic of this group of pictures that they make us relate to the piled donuts in a physical way––to their impressive scale, material quality, and immediacy.