Mothers, Eggshells, and the People Who Birth Us
Curated by Kim Abeles
Closes Tuesday May 22nd at 5pm
Written By Betty Ann Brown
What fabrications they are, mothers. Scarecrows, wax dolls for us to stick pins into, crude diagrams. We deny them an existence of their own, we make them up to suit ourselves–our own hungers, our own wishes, our own deficiencies. ~Margaret Atwood
I wanted my mother to be warm and supportive and insightful and forgiving. But she was not. I wanted her to love me unconditionally and to be on my side always. But she could not. Like most people, she did the best she could, but I ended up with a big mother wound anyway. As did almost all of my close friends.
My mother’s generation grew up in the middle of the twentieth century, coming to age as the Rosie the Riveter generation was being forced back into the home by what Betty Friedan called the “Feminine Mystique”–the cultural concept that women really do belong in the home rather than the work place. Like many of her contemporaries, my mother filled with resentment as she chafed against the patriarchal constraints and excruciating monotony of housewifery. Although she never found the words for it, she was angry and horribly, tragically unhappy.
My own generation responded to that historic repression by starting the Feminist Art Movement of the 1970s and 80s. I was an early and avid participant. (In spite of the fact that one of my most accomplished friends told me she assumed I would be giving up my career when I decided to become a mother.) (I kept working anyway.) The Feminist Art Movement produced institutions like the Los Angeles Woman’s Building and amazing artists like Judy Baca, Judy Chicago, Betye Saar, and June Wayne. It also made possible the burgeoning careers of a younger generation of artists like Cheri Gaulke, May Sun, and Kim Abeles.
Abeles recently moved to a studio in Keystone Art Space. She curated an exhibition there that invited artists to create and display work about their mothers. Entitled “Mothers, Eggshells, and the People Who Birth Us,” the show features artworks by over 90 artists. I can only mention a few of them here, which is a shame since there is so much strong art included.
Some of the work is a few years old, such as Mark Steven Greenfield’s house-shaped wall hanging that includes an old photograph of his mother on a tapestry that is suspended under a white triangular roof. At the bottom of the piece is a black disc etched with her words, “We’re never gonna survive unless we get a little…crazy.” I think of how women were declared crazy and incarcerated in insane asylums when they stepped outside their socially proscribed roles.
On the wall opposite Greenfield’s piece is Joey Forsyte’s assemblage of neon, a photograph, glass teardrops, a pair of her mother’s eyeglasses, a video, and a stack of burned books. A framed white square encases the words, “When an elder dies, a library burns…African Proverb.” I think of the recipes and other wisdom lost when my grandmother died, and how much my own mother took with her.
Many artists made new work for the show. Kristine Schomaker shredded stacks of letters written to her mother as well as entries from her journal. The resultant confetti was stuffed into glass cake stands. Arranged on a short white shelf, they imitate pastries as objective correlatives of the female knowledge shared between mother and daughter. (Exactly what did my mother do to those German Chocolate Cakes to make them so yummy?!!)
Abeles’s exhibition has two distinct but related parts. The first involves the larger works in the main gallery, like those of Greenfield, Forsyte, and Schomaker. The second part is a group of 45 petri dish portraits on display in a narrow gallery carved out of Abeles’s own studio space. Some of the petri dish images are achingly beautiful, like Mary Allan’s painted heart and Jill Syke’s noir-ish depiction of her mother smoking. Others are sentimental, with wistful longing, like Barbara T. Smith’s portrait including her mother’s lace purse, a photograph, and a jeweled shoe buckle. Then there are the umbilical cords of Thinh Nguyen and his siblings, that the artist’s mother carefully preserved in tiny knitted bags.
Still other petri dish examples are frankly disturbing. Like Susan Feldman Tucker’s portrait crossed by slivers of text representing fragments of conflicted thoughts: “toxic behavior,” “ill at ease,” “personal assaults,” and “angry.” (I’ve had all those thoughts about my own mother, so I can totally relate…)
Margaret Atwood reminds us, ” No mother is ever, completely, a child’s idea of what a mother should be…” I suppose this is true. Kim Abeles’s powerful exhibition allows us to unpack the full panoply of children’s thoughts about their mothers. As it happens, all of the participants are adult children who are now artists. It is in their creative work that they have found the way to unpack and engage with such thoughts. Fair warning: Anyone who visits this visually appealing and emotionally intense exhibition will be compelled to consider their own ideas about motherhood. As I was forced to do.