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Sugar Rush

J.M. Giordano explores the connection between sex, pop, and sugary confections

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“Cake #2” From J.M. Giordano’s show at Gallery CA, American Sugar

American Sugar

On view at Gallery CA on Oliver Street through August 31st.

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“I Smell Sex and Candy”—the chorus of the 1997 Marcy Playground song—is likely to infect the mind of anyone (of a certain age) who steps into Gallery CA this month. American Sugar, a solo show by Baltimore native and City Paper contributor J.M. Giordano, embodies the flavor of the curiously contagious single: catchy pop with an overt hint of creepiness.

“I was really interested in updating Pop Art to our generation, the 18-35ish generation,” the artist says. References to pillars of the Pop Art movement, from Wayne Thiebaud to Tom Wesselmann, are direct and intentional. “Cake #1” and “Cake #2,” both metallic prints, take the benign sweetness of Thiebaud’s signature pastries and pervert it to a point of nausea. Teeth are liable to ache at the sight of them; their folds of pillowy icing resemble rolls of fat decorated with clown paint. In “The American Experience,” a plastic grenade is filled with Hershey’s Kisses. “That was a little wink to the Mylar stuff that Warhol did but also [to] the fact that Kisses are so American as a confection,” Giordano says.

To bring Pop Art into the present Giordano sought to engage imagery from mass culture that a younger generation would have immediate and accessible associations with—which goes a long way to explain how one ends up with an art piece made from Capri Suns and an IV pole, as in “C’mon Bro, Hook Me Up.” Underneath the flash of shiny surfaces and ironic ingredients, Giordano’s work is taking jabs at solemn subjects through the semantics of the mundane and the pitifully silly.

The show, featuring both prints and sculptures, represents a first foray into mixed media for the longtime photographer. Sugar addiction, in all its grotesque forms and consequences, plays a central role, but American Sugar is about desire in many forms, particularly desire for the unnatural and potentially harmful. Seduction and its attendant obsession intrigues the artist. “It’s the way we’re drawn to these sort of nasty things that aren’t even natural,” Giordano explains.

The photographic images in the show are cramped, uncomfortable, and almost distractingly shiny. The use of the Kodak metallic paper was intentional, meant to underscore the glitzy superficiality of the constructions. “This is glossy to 11,” the artist says. In “She Must Be Somebody’s Baby,” a title taken from Jackson Browne’s hit “Somebody’s Baby,” a washed-out blonde contemplates an enormous candy ring. “To me, that’s what weddings have become in this country, just a confection,” Giordano says. “It doesn’t mean anything anymore.”

In the more emphatically titled “She’s Gotta Be Somebody’s Baby,” a woman in a bad wig snorts a white substance from a mirrored surface. Closer inspection reveals the powder to be a Pixy Stix rather than cocaine, but wisdom gathered from savvy fourth-graders maintains that this is still an act of grave self-harm. “Sugar Smack” is a tightly cropped image of a mouth slightly open, the lips decorated in a red, white, and blue theme, executed in sprinkles and colored cake sugars. A rope of drool hangs lasciviously from the corner of the dripping orifice, ensuring that the pose, while obviously sensual, is about as sexy as a chili dog-eating contest. “I wanted it as gross as possible,” Giordano says. Mission accomplished.

On the sculptural side, “One Nation Under The Needle” is a standout piece. It’s a light box with an approximation of an American flag, made from hypodermic needles filled with Powerade. The needles, seen from above, have the benefit of resembling tiny skyscrapers or rocket ships, symbols of competitive ambition rendered impotent on such a small scale.

Impotence is also addressed in the piece “Weak Stream,” a trio of sadly deflated American flag mylar balloons. The piece evolved serendipitously when a studio mate pointed to some leftover balloons and said, “Man, those balloons are just like the economy, just like our fucking country.” Still exploratory and adaptable in his process of object-making, Giordano took the hint and managed to make a piece that works on multiple levels: Impotence is a common side effect of diabetes, which ties the piece in with the show’s larger themes of poor diet and disease. But, as Giordano explains, “It’s also about America’s lessening power in the world.”

Are the themes in American Sugar a bit on the obvious side? Sure. But so is the fact that our country is stewing in a serious health crisis. And staggering, readily available statistics on diabetes, obesity, and other generally avoidable health issues seem to inspire no one but Michelle Obama to take action.

On the whole, Giordano is most successful in his familiar territory, photography. The sculptures in American Sugar are conceptually interesting, but they would benefit from a higher degree of craftsmanship. Technical development will help ensure that Giordano leaves a legacy more lasting than the fleeting fortune of Marcy Playground.

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