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Creative Research Lab

FEVER - July 2005

sculpture by Wagner

Stephanie Wagner
Cry Me a River, 2005
mixed media
approx. 74" x 74" x 65" h

Catalog Essay by Alex Codlin:

"But, I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its luster, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone."
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

In Great Expectations, Charles Dickens introduces his readers to Miss Havisham, one of the most memorable of his menagerie of characters. Jilted a few minutes before her wedding many years ago by her fiancé, Miss Havisham's life stopped at this very moment. Years later, she continues to wear her bridal gown, veil, and the one shoe that she placed on her foot before hearing the awful news that prevented her from stepping into the other. The unworn shoe remains in pristine condition, lying untouched on the floor of her drawing room, but everything else that was once beautiful and virginal white for the celebration is now a musty yellow. Even all the clocks in Miss Havisham's house are stuck at twenty minutes to nine; a record of the moment when she heard that she would not become a wife.

Stephanie Wagner read Great Expectations as a child and was intrigued by Miss Havisham. Recently, she returned to this character as a conceptual basis for a series of sculptures and installations. Languishing, stuck in time, waiting for a wedding that never was and never will be Miss Havisham becomes the epitome of a failed celebration. Dressed like she could still dash down the aisle at a moment's notice, the once beautiful and white wedding dress has faded and the bride herself is no longer blushing, but an aging spinster. Despite Miss Havisham's tragic response to her canceled wedding, Dickens creates a character so absurd and over-the-top that readers have to stifle their laughter while feeling sorry for her at the same time.

Wagner plays with this idea of tragedy and comedy through her investigation of the failed celebration. In her new work Cry Me a River, she concocts a large sculpture loosely based on the form of a fluffy and ornate cake. The cake does not just stand in for Miss Havisham's uneaten and molding cake or a phantom wedding attendant, but can become any cake meant for life's many celebrations that do not always live up to our oversized expectations. Wagner's work plays with issues of gender, not only through the physical creation of the cake, normally a role confined to the woman's realm of the kitchen, but also through the female domain of the planning and execution of celebrations. Like the title of Dickens' novel, expectations for happy celebrations are often high and when they fail is the only response like Miss Havisham's to her own canceled wedding?

Wagner picks up the pieces of Miss Havisham's social disaster by celebrating all that goes wrong in life. Instead of a perfect cake ready to be sliced and served, Cry Me a River looks like a cake left out for far too long, waiting for guests that never arrived or a celebration that never materialized. Wagner builds the cake from craft materials, found and scavenged objects, to industrial materials. Each object placed in her work, regardless of its original state, is lovingly labored over by the artist. Pastel yellow insulating foam takes on the form of icing melting and oozing down the sides of the sculpture. The yellow recalls garish bridesmaid dresses, artifacts of a happy occasion now languishing in the back of closets, never to be worn again. Light bulbs flicker throughout the sculpture, as if the cake still waits for someone to blow them out and make a wish. Despite entropy and gravity having laid the cake to waste, Cry Me a River is still a whimsical treat for the eyes. Like Miss Havisham, it is so over-the-top in its pastel yellow glory that you cannot help but smile as you slowly walk around the work. As Wagner, says you should take the time to laugh now as there will be plenty of time for tears to be shed later. Life does not always turn out as planned and the cake does not always get eaten with glee, but that is okay sometimes even the most great of expectations are not met.