Both a prayer and a near-curse, the phrase "Sweet Jesus" is made literal by the artist Cosimo Cavallaro in his first exhibition at the Proposition Gallery, titled "Chocolate Saints. . . Sweet Jesus," Oct. 27-Nov. 24, 2007.
Inspired by typical gift-shop religious statuary, Cavallaro has created nine dark-chocolate saints, each measuring 12 inches tall. They are rather surprisingly heartfelt, considering their confectionary origins. The saints are installed on individual plinths that surround a life-sized figure of the crucified Christ. Ordinarily hung upright, Cavallaro’s Jesus is laid horizontally on a small white platform that suggests a makeshift crib, in an uncanny echo of the Nativity. The chocolate molds have allowed some tiny air bubbles to form, and they replicate the worm holes found on ancient wooden artifacts. You might even mistake the material for wood, but for its tempting smell.
Cavallaro has chosen several popular saints, including Anthony, Francis, Jude, Augustine and Mary of Jesus, who are often appealed to by the devout for help with disease, healing and lost causes.
The artist has a history of making art with food. You may recall his Cheese House (2001), a bungalow coated in melted cheese, or his Emperor Chair (2000), an armchair molded of hard candy. Cavallaro has also molded pianos out of latex, and set an assortment of objects on fire [see "Burning Down the House," Mar. 26, 2002].
Sweet Jesus, which is a 200-pound, six-foot-tall sculpture in chocolate of an anatomically correct nude man posed in the manner of the crucified Christ, was originally scheduled to go on view on Easter Sunday in a midtown gallery, but protests from Catholic activists caused that show to be cancelled. This time around, the exhibition went forward undisturbed by controversy, presumably because it takes place off the beaten track and opened on a less holy holiday, All Saints Day, Nov. 1, 2007.
In the magical zone of contemporary esthetics, chocolate is a symbol of unparalleled richness. For Joseph Beuys, it had magical and therapeutic power. The Swiss-German Dieter Roth made chocolate lions, busts and other statuary and left them to rot as a comment on time, process and decay. In 1992, Janine Antoni gnawed on a pair of 600-pound cubes of chocolate and lard, and the next year licked a chocolate self-portrait bust, all as a comment on the cultural molding of women. And Paul McCarthy currently has a whole "chocolate factory" operating at Maccarone gallery, churning out chocolate Santas holding chocolate butt-plug-shaped Christmas trees.
It’s to his credit, then, that Cavallero is able to take the substance, and infuse it with his own personal meaning. He links the euphoria of eating chocolate to his own pleasant memories of church rituals, and also cites his family’s belief that their prayers to the saints for the intercession of grace saved his gravely injured father.
But most important is the notion of the "humanation of Christ," a notion that the art historian Leo Steinberg explored in an influential essay. The task of religious artists during the Renaissance, as Steinberg put it, was to express the dual nature of Jesus, as both son of man and son of God. In its own way, then, Cavallero’s holy icon forged of a very earthly substance has an actually sincere symbolism -- it may be outrageous on the outside, but it has a center that is all sweet humanity.
JULIA MORTON is a New York-based curator and writer on the visual arts. Her first book, Amalgam: Kent Williams, was published in 2006.