“The ‘cake’ paintings seemed outrageous [at the time] because I used cake-icing nozzles instead of conventional brushes and because I treated oil painting conceptually, in my use of painting’s language as well as in terms of the medium (paint made to be unnaturally affected by gravity, wrinkle, crack and decay). This, along with the sexual imagery … produced a mix of cool distance and overheated intimacy.” Penny Siopis (2005)
Between 1980 and 1984 Siopis developed her ‘cake’ paintings which sprang from her childhood experiences of watching her mother ice cakes in the family bakery. Siopis’ fascination with the implements used in the shop gave rise to this first series of her career. Instead of traditional paintbrush techniques, she used unconventional implements such as piping nozzles and other tools used in the decoration of cakes.
Concerned with exploring the materiality of paint and its potential as object, Siopis worked with oil paint in a way that strayed from the norm, layering it thickly in high relief in a technique referred to as ‘impasto’. This approach causes the outside layer of the medium to dry long before the interior, leading the surface to wrinkle and crack over time.
Siopis’ skillful use of form and colour within this body of work evokes associations with skin and flesh. The physical changes visible on the surface of her works serve as a direct metaphor for the all too real effects of time and circumstance on the human body which ages, wrinkles and eventually decomposes.
Challenging the conventions of Western art history that idealize the female nude, Siopis suggests female body parts in states of decay, decomposition and excess, both confrontational and vulnerable at the same time. While the female body is the main focus of these works, their association with food and decay comments on larger social narratives which are developed in the paintings that follow.
After her ‘cakes’, Siopis began to create the ‘banquet’ and early ‘history paintings’ in the mid-1980s, extending into the early 1990s. These works coincided with the end of apartheid and South Africa’s transition to a democratic nation. They commented on the excesses of colonialism and the mis/representation of race and gender within history. In contrast to the quieter, simpler compositions of the ‘cake’ paintings, this body of work is epitomized by dramatically crowded scenes executed in intricate detail, with tables full of food and other objects filling the canvas and emphasizing the idea of excess.