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Sweet Dreams

June 14, 1990|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

Diet-minded sweet freaks know that the best way to deal with candy and pastry shops is to think of goodies as artworks. You can look at chocolate roses, gingerbread horses and marzipan pineapples to your heart's delight. You can love gummy bears and sugar Day of the Dead skulls as well as you love Wayne Thiebaud's luscious cake paintings or Giuseppe Arcimboldo's bizarre fruit-and-vegetable portraits. But you can't eat very many sugary treats if you value your figure and your teeth.

No will power is required, however, to enjoy "The Confectioner's Art," an international exhibition of sweet edibles at the California Museum of Science and Industry in Exposition Park (to July 29). Plexiglass cases protect the show's confections (and your figure), which display the history and techniques of using sugar and chocolate as artistic media.

This is not an eater-friendly arrangement, but the precautions may be unnecessary. For one thing, some of the confections appear to be suffering from age and travel. They looked fresher last November, when the exhibition opened at the elegant American Craft Museum in New York.

Besides, who would want to destroy Rosemary Littman's Wall Street Journal cake or the cake shaped into a big pair of Converse sneakers? Would you really bite into Dolph Gotelli's wooden chair inlaid with colored candies or Peter Rocha's jelly bean "painting" of the Statue of Liberty? Could you bear to ruin a platter of lifelike marzipan fish or a chocolate re-creation of a 12th-Century Spanish tapestry? These creations weren't made to be devoured; they were crafted for visual delectation.

That's not to say the sweet wonders are artworks in the most elevated sense of the word, but they are wonderful curiosities. The "art" in the exhibition title refers to the high degree of skill and ingenuity required to make the confections. Consider such achievements as a chocolate Monopoly set, a bouquet of pastel chocolate tulips and a four-tiered cake covered with lattices and festooned with sugar-paste irises and lilies. Not impressed? Well, what about a cake replica of the White House or decorated gingerbread figures from an Austrian Nativity scene?

Once you get past the stage of exclaiming over the spectacles and the craftsmanship, you find an educational exhibition that delves into history and covers a big chunk of geography. In the illustrated catalogue, for example, you find that when the Aztecs greeted Cortez as a god, Montezuma served him "lavish banquets at which chocolate flowed freely from golden goblets." After chocolate had been transported to Europe and sweetened with sugar, recipes were closely guarded. Chocolate was banned in France until Anne of Austria, who married Louis XIII, included chocolate secrets in her dowry and made chocolate respectable in the French court.

These historical tidbits turn up in a section of the show dealing with materials--sugar and chocolate. Other segments explore tools and techniques, shapes and forms, advertising and packaging, confections for special occasions and contemporary artists' work that goes "beyond tradition."

The tools include an intriguing variety of wood and metal molds, icing tubes and walnut forms for sugar paste flowers. Unfortunately, there's no artist on duty to demonstrate how to pull and stretch marbled chocolate into bowls, vases and flowers, or to spin long threads of sugar, but you get the idea. As for shapes and forms, imagination seems to be the limit. Chocolatiers who know their stuff turn out full-size chocolate pliers, wrenches and scissors, as well as miniature typewriters, telephones, Bingo boards and Empire State Buildings.

Such labor deserves a sweet sell, and the show offers charming examples in illustrated candy wrappers from the '40s and advertising posters from the '20s.

But perhaps the sweetest message of the show is how confectionary traditions have grown up around holidays and special occasions throughout the world. Cakes are so essential to modern American life that a birthday or wedding celebration would be unthinkable without them, but "The Confectioner's Art" offers some new ideas. Abraham pastries, filled with marzipan and decorated to resemble the bearded patriarch, are presented on 50th birthdays in Holland, so that the recipient can feel a little less old and a little more wise. If your 65th birthday is coming up, you might consider something like Tom Ambrosina's jazzy cake, ringed with multicolor numerals and uplifting slogans: "65 Cheers for Senior Citizens" and "Look Alive at 65."

Living up to their reputation, some of the contemporary artists give no thought to tradition. They simply rob the candy jar for raw materials, sticking candies on furniture, stringing them as beads and using them as tesserae in mosaics. In short, they do almost everything with sweets but eat them.

California Museum of Science and Industry, 700 State Drive, Exposition Park, to July 29. Admission is free. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

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