It was my first time at the remodeled de Young Museum and it was a circus. No, really. The Gregangelo and Velocity Circus was there as part of the Friday Nights at the de Young event series. As if that weren't enough to attract every child within twenty miles of Golden Gate Park, a "hands-on art activity for the entire family" was also taking place. Brightly colored pipe cleaners and Styrofoam balls overflowed the tables, as parents admired their children's oddly shaped creations. To get through the mobs and reach Timothy Horn's Bitter Suite, I adopted the same survival strategy I use when walking through dangerous neighborhoods. I put my head down and maintained a look of mild shock on my face.
Horn, an Australian artist, created Bitter Suite as part of the museum's Collection Connections series, in which artists reinterpret and riff on works in the permanent collection. He was inspired by the biography and artifacts of Alma le Normand de Bretteville Spreckels, the widow of sugar baron and Legion of Honor founder Adolph Spreckels. Alma was famous for her pursuit and acquisition of high-society status symbols, and was rumored to use a gilded throne in her mansion's telephone booth. Horn has created exaggerated versions of Alma's objects out of sugar, emphasizing their symbolic function while revealing the source of the Spreckels's wealth -- the sugar industry.
The exhibit's three sculptures rise like a surreal mirage from the ground of the otherwise conservative gallery space. Sweet Thing consists of blown glass and nickel-plated bronze and resembles a gargantuan pearl-drop earring. Mother-Load is a large rust-colored carriage constructed from metal and rock candy. Diadem (light heavyweight) is also partially made from crystallized sugar. More garish than ornate, the chandelier-shaped sculpture seems to drip from the ceiling. Both the carriage and chandelier look as though they are made of churros, those Spanish pastries I am always tempted to buy from sidewalk vendors in the Mission District. The neighboring New England nature photographs and African sculptures were boring in comparison.
Bitter Suite is most notable for its size and unconventional materials. "How do you make a carriage out of rock candy?" I found myself thinking. Unfortunately, I thought much less about the work's conceptual underpinnings. I don't fault the artist as much as the evening. The mood from downstairs had infected me. Horn's sculptures were like reflections in a fun-house mirror, and I wasn't capable of much more than those parents downstairs, overwhelmed by the crowds, smiling at anything with a pretty color and a pleasing shape.
Timothy Horn's Bitter Suite is on display at the de Young Museum through October 12, 2008. For more information, visit famsf.org/deyoung.