"The Beauty War" by Scott Hove is an immersive dreamscape for art-lovers and selfie-takers alike. Exploring the enchanting exhibition inside the artist's aptly-named Chinatown gallery, Cakeland LA, is not unlike taking a trip inside an elaborately decorated floor-to-ceiling cake, complete with painstakingly re-imagined "frosting" rendered in Hove's singular, sculptural style. Yet the fate of the exhibition's delicious ambiance has been hanging in the balance since March 19, the same day California Governor Gavin Newsom's statewide stay-at-home orders curtailed a highly anticipated media and VIP preview for "The Beauty War."
Instead of welcoming a group of eager viewers amid a constellation of flashing camera lights on the night of the preview, Hove found himself "celebrating" alone with a bottle of mezcal and his dog, alternately laughing and crying at the absurdity of it all. Investors swiftly withdrew their support, steering Hove towards a PPP loan that has enabled Cakeland LA to stay afloat. Now, “The Beauty War” is finally open for the public to visit on a ticketed basis and at reduced capacity. Meanwhile, the show’s message has evolved in ways the artist never expected, but which he welcomes nonetheless.
When Hove first signed the lease for Cakeland LA and began working on "The Beauty War" in November of last year, the space was little more than a plain, white, angular void. Since then, it has transformed into a mesmerizing maze that resembles a sumptuous cake with teeth. Things look good enough to eat on the surface, but what lurks beneath the outwardly opulent and seemingly delectable glaze speaks to a pervasive theme in Hove's work: the balance of light and dark forces.
A pair of Cantonese-style dragons ushers viewers into the immersive experience, recalling Hove's black-and-white interwoven dragons on Cakeland LA's exterior marquee. A lush, color-saturated environment immediately evokes the optimistic, awe-inspiring wonder of birth, followed by a comparatively eerie space designed to recall the experience of "getting thrown out in the wilderness and having to figure things out," as Hove describes it. Next comes an elaborate oval area that’s inspired by one of Hove's favorite spots in L.A.: the elliptical, pink-and-gold ladies' powder room at the Los Angeles Theatre. For Hove, the space represents life and family, complete with antiques from the artist's childhood home in the Bay Area. Viewers exit the exhibition through a hybrid photo station/gift shop/event space crowned with an elaborate four-poster bed, representing all stages of life and bringing the whole experience full circle.
To deliver the illusion of cake-ness, Hove uses everything from plywood and house paint to Swarovski crystals and faux cherries, orange slices and peppermint candies. Ironically, when it comes to actual cakes, Hove isn't a fan. "I just don't like sugar and carbs very much," he admits. So, what is it about cakes that make it such a central image in his art? "I think it's the calming, emotional quality of cakes and its ingrained cultural significance," he responds. "Just about everybody has positive associations with cake. Peak moments of our lives are always accompanied by cake."
Click right and left to see glimpses of Scott Hove's immersive installation "The Beauty War."
Born in San Francisco, Hove grew up in Marin County and moved to Los Angeles in September of 2014. The lifelong artist started his career making large-scale paintings and murals in acrylic and oil, along with assemblages and a series based on traditional ship knots. They were inspired by a side gig doing traditional ship rigging on tugboats. Meanwhile, he had been collecting fake food for most of his life as well. "Fake lasts forever," he quips. "It creates a weird emotional state, a realistic-looking piece of fake food. It compels your stomach in a way, even though you intellectually know it's fake."
In 2005, the idea of fake food — particularly cake — became a part of Hove's art and remained that way ever since. "The language was speaking to little kids as much as it was speaking to older people. I just had to continue that," Hove says. But he didn’t stop there. Instead, he introduced grisly elements such as fangs to evoke a sense of fear to counter the wonder of the audience. "You're compelled, and you're repelled at the same time. I love that tension, putting viewers through that situation of seducing them and then driving them away, simultaneously."
Before COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd, "The Beauty War" was about leveraging beauty as a weapon against environmental destruction. While the environment is still one of Hove's main concerns, the show's meaning has since expanded to address injustice overall. "It's just been recontextualized," he says. "But the archetypes stand as the context changes. In fact, certain things are, I think, more poignant, more important now. We're in the early stages of what appears to be a complete social revolution that was just primed by the COVID-19 experience. Everybody's been home, sitting with themselves, thinking about their lives, getting in touch with their feelings — the good and the bad. The fear and living with uncertainty — that's an amazing thing to get used to."
Hove acknowledges that the concept of light and dark as oppositional, clashing forces only makes sense with regards to human intervention. "Nature has figured out how to integrate light and dark," he agrees. "It's like the universe is a perfect balance of light and dark forces. You need one to have the other because if it's all light, there's no depth, and there's no reality. They have to coexist." Likewise, the artist finds himself offended by a "good vibes only" mentality: "There's a real spiritual problem there because that's not the human reality. That's not the human experience. So, I'm always trying to reintegrate. That's what nature does: integrates light and dark forces that are out of whack. And right now, we're way out of whack, nationwide."
After the opening of "The Beauty War" was postponed indefinitely in March, Hove used the time to work on the show's smaller details, which he didn't have the opportunity to address before. In the process, Cakeland LA became a retreat of the artist's making. In the aftermath of the extended quarantine and in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, Hove found himself in a state of acceptance rather than anxiety. "We've become used to this expectation of convenience and comfort, a reliable cycle of how things should be. And that's really not how nature works. How we're existing right now is actually closer to how most living beings in the entire world live.”
In addition to feeling a curious sense of peace, Hove says he’s noticed an increased sense of community, which he welcomes: “Everybody's in it together. People are reminded of how important community is, and why we need to be working together towards the common good, and not exclusively working on our own problems day-to-day, trying to put out our own fires. We're part of a bigger society, and we are stronger when we work together. I'm really optimistic that that's one of the things that's going to have more of a presence in our culture."
Instead of grieving for the recent past, Hove says he’s found a sense of liberation from it. "I don't want to go back to how things were," he declares. "None of us should want to go back to how things were, with traffic jams all day long. Everybody's just upset and paying too much money, and everybody's angry. That's not supposed to be the case. So, as upsetting as this is, it's been a long time coming, and it's really a necessary step."
In the end, Hove says he appreciates the current sense of uncertainty, even if others are struggling with it. "Not knowing what's going to happen is not a terrible thing," he points out. "Thinking that you know what's going to happen next month guarantees that nothing interesting is going to happen. Right now, we can be the masters of our own futures, because we don't have any kind of authority or any type of parent or relative who can hold us by the hand and guide us through it. It's on us to figure it out ourselves."
Cakeland Gallery LA is located at 936 Mei Ling Way in Chinatown. "The Beauty War" is open Wednesdays-Sundays and is on exhibit through December 31, 2020. More information here.
Top Image: Detail of Scott Hove's 'The Beauty War' | Courtesy of Scott Hove