Portfolio
And Everything Else, by HA! (Home Affairs)

 

Statement:

The idea of the maternal as a historically and socially constructed process is a relatively recent theme in feminist art and thought, emerging in politically engaged work in the 1960s and ’70s. In the United States, this topic was a major focus of Adrienne Rich’s poetic and activist challenge to traditional notions of motherhood. Her “motherhood as experience” and “motherhood as enforced identity and as political institution,” continue to resonate among feminists today. In contrast, Lucy R. Lippard’s concurrent questioning of the absence of representations of motherhood within feminist art (“no women dealing with their own bodies and biographies have introduced pregnancy or childbirth as a major image”) today seems dated, as visual artists who are by now part of the feminist canon began in the early ’70s drawing on their experiences of pregnancy and birth, their relationship with their children, and their identity as mothers.¹ Among women artists focusing on the maternal as a central subject for artmaking during this period are Mary Kelly (Post-Partum Document, 1973–79), Susan Hiller (Ten Months, 1977–79), and Mierle Laderman Ukeles (Maintenance Art Tasks, 1973).

These artists sought to create representations of mothers alternative to the maternal imagery of art history—that is, from Roman matriarchs to endless representations of that Übermutter, the Virgin Mary (what Andrea Liss and others term “patriarchal motherhood”)—challenging the control of male artists over historical representations of mothers, as well as their attendant picturing of the institution of motherhood on “the myth of the all-loving, all-forgiving and all-sacrificing mother.”² Yet this is not to say that the position of the artist-mother is resolved. To the contrary, Lippard’s question concerning the invisibility of mother-artists is unfortunately still relevant today: “Is this because many of these artists are young and have yet to have children? Or because women artists have traditionally either refused to have children or have hidden them away in order to be taken seriously in a world that accuses wives and mothers of being part-time artists?”³

Consisting of nine posters representing artist-mothers and their children, And Everything Else began in response to an incident involving one of the members of the group who was uninvited from an exhibition when the curator judged that the opening date was too close to her due date. Almost forty years after Lippard’s essay, the project thus registers the continued marginalization of the maternal body in art and art institutions. In this regard, And Everything Else is also part of the resurgence of interest in feminist themes in contemporary art, including motherhood, among critics and the art world.

Symptomatic of this trend is, for instance, a recent article in the New York Times, whose title “Why Can’t Great Artists be Mothers?” echoes Linda Nochlin’s famous essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971). The author, Jacoba Urist, cites the work of contemporary artist-mothers Keliy Anderson-Staley, Tara Donovan, Cig Harvey, Rania Matar, and Sarah Sze as reflective of how motherhood and artmaking can be productively constitutive. Urist, however, also notes that art historical discourse and contemporary women artists alike have internalized normative discourses about artists. She cites as examples the fact that the women artists most often discussed in art history, such as Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Lee Krasner, are all childless, and the British sculptor Tracey Emin’s opinion that motherhood and artistry are incompatible. Clearly, representations of motherhood are currently emerging as a hot topic in the art world, though judging from the conflicted positions of women artists vis-à-vis the subject, much remains to be changed qua the outlook on artists and cultural institutions alike.

While unified by the shared theme of the maternal, the artists contributing to And Everything Else represent their experiences of motherhood from diverse points of view. Conceived as a series, each poster (long a medium associated with social movements) has a similar layout that consists of a photograph taken by HA! members Arzu Ozkal and Nanette Yannuzi (Melissa Smedley’s self-made portrait is an exception) overlaid with a text contributed by the artist photographed. Seven artists in addition to Ozkal and Yannuzi have contributed to the series: Robin Brasington, Millie Chen, Maria Duran, Marilyn Simmons, Smedley, Gail Swanlund, and Alison Wiese. The posters are designed to be distributed among the public visiting the exhibition of the project.

From the perspective of institutional critique, Ozkal’s poster depicts the artist in the role of the fox, the archetype of the trickster, a mother nursing her baby. The text is addressed to curators: “Does your gallery, museum, conference center or festival provide child care?” Similarly alluding to the labor of care, Smedley’s contribution humorously references the conflation of women and mothers with nature. Drawing on religious and archetypal symbology of the mother, Smedley portrays herself with bare feet and dressed in a robe, buckling under the weight of a tree of life fashioned of a spade and a rack, nets, foodstuffs, and other domestic accruements such as pots. On her head a servant cap with the word “mom” handwritten on it references Christ imagery evocative of sacrifice.

Brasington’s, Duran’s, and Swanlund’s contributions all address motherhood as both personal experience and socially constructed concept. Portrayed nursing her child, Duran gazes directly at the viewer, stating that she is the same (woman) and not the same (woman) (“la misma pero no”), as if answering a question posed by an invisible interlocutor. Absent a child, Swanlund depicts herself alongside her male partner on the couch holding a book on biology. As well as suggesting the imbrication of motherhood with science and technology, her text obliquely references the pathologizing of women who deviate from the “ideal image of motherhood.” Brasington uses a conversational tone, as if recounting a personal experience with unsolicited judgment concerning parenting approaches: “Then she says it is the people who let their kids do everything that are the worst parents.” The artist’s portrait of herself completely shrouded in black cloth and holding up her child references histories of photographic representations of motherhood, notably the unsettling, fashionable Victorian-era photos of “hidden mothers”: mothers and sometimes fathers who were used as props, holding their children in a sitting position for their portraits (a practice that had roots in the technological limitations of photography at the time, as the portraits required a long exposure time to which children were not amenable).

Similarly referencing the history of photography, Yanuzzi uses collage to construct her portrait. Her face, surrounded by images of toys, a razor, and a bottle of nail polish in lieu of hair, is altogether enveloped in a transparent nylon cover. Alongside this work, Chen’s image evokes a clock, showing the artist sitting in the middle of a circle of nine objects, including a drawing triangle, a child’s toy, a plant, a tea pot, a cup, and a bicycle helmet, her arms raised up as the two clock hands. Both artists play on biological time. Along with the objects in her collage, Yanuzzi’s text, “what has been, what will be, and what remains,” alludes to the passing of time, perhaps in reference to grown-up children. Chen alludes to the nine months of gestation as a “blink,” ambiguously suggesting a sense of the rapid passing of time and a state of sleep deprivation.

The posters by Wiese and Simmons are addressed to their children, who are portrayed alongside the artists. Wiese portrays herself wrapped in a tent-like blanket looking down at her young daughter, who peeks out at the viewer. The text comments on a fairy tale (and 2009 Disney movie), The Princess and the Frog, adding that they “live in a patriarchal society” (“patriarchal” being a new word for Wiese’s daughter according to Ozkal, who took the picture). Simmons portrays herself looking sideways, her child behind and above her and holding a drawing. The text contains advice: “never neglect picking flowers, climbing trees.”

And Everything Else includes both biological and non-biological mothers and their children, and evidences interests in investigating how cultural tropes shape our gendered perceptions of parenting, as well as how social constructions of the maternal intersect with conventional notions of art, the artist, and the art world. In this sense, the project continues in the vein of past challenges of normative representations of the maternal, albeit against a background rife with violent assaults on the legacy of 1970s feminist movements and on women’s bodies. Moreover, inasmuch as And Everything Else addresses alternative representations of the maternal, the project can also be seen to point to the absence of images of fatherhood in art. The idea that to become a great artist one must be free of all responsibilities, focusing on the creation of art alone, is still central to the image of the artist. Pablo Picasso, Antony Gormley, Damien Hirst, and Anish Kapoor, to name a few, are/were all fathers, yet this role is not predominant in their work. Whether fathers of children or not, male artist-fathers have always been and continue to be addressed in relation to their work. So Marcel Duchamp is the “father of conceptual art” and Richard Hamilton the “father of pop art.” By contrast, we have no mothers of art, but, rather, artist-mothers. Yet surely after decades of feminist thought and agitation, we cannot understand the maternal as strictly reducible to the female body. Conceived as a “matrix” of mind, matter, and machines, the maternal is today a crucial “space” for reimagining the relation between concepts of the maternal, nature, and culture.4

As we attempt to do so, it behooves us to consider Rich’s words: “Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experiences. Our future depends on the sanity of each of us, and we have a profound stake, beyond the personal, in the project of describing our reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other.”5

 

HA! wishes to thank the following artists for their contributions to the project: Robin Brasington, Millie Chen, Maria Duran, Marilyn Simmons, Melissa Smedley, Gail Swanlund, and Alison Wiese.

Home Affairs

NOTES 1. Lucy R. Lippard, “The Pains and Pleasures of Rebirth: European and American Women’s Body Art,” in From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art (New York: Dutton, 1976), 121. 2. Andrea Liss, Feminist Art and the Maternal (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), xv. 3. Lucy R. Lippard, “The Pains and Pleasures of Rebirth,” 134–35. 4. Irina Aristarkhova, Hospitality of the Matrix: Philosophy, Biomedicine, and Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 16. 5. Adrienne Rich, “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,” in Literacies: Reading, Writing, Interpretation, ed. Terence Brunk et al. (New York: Norton, 1997), 405.

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