Amanda Schilling: All Women, Beauty and Chaos
Written by Genie Davis
Amanda Schilling creates works that relate to all women – images that focus on expectations, perfectionism, beauty and chaos.
“My work deals with issues that many women face daily; gender inequality, the desire for perfection, feelings of guilt and inadequacy, and loss of self, especially as it pertains to women once they become wives and mothers,” Schilling relates. She adds that “I think the idea that women are expected to fulfill the vast majority of unpaid domestic labor roles, often after or while also laboring full-time at a more recognized job, is absurd. I want to use my work to highlight this absurdity. I don’t believe that generations of women before us fought for the right to attend major universities or have equality in the workplace just to return home after receiving a prestigious degree or running a corporation to then labor unpaid as maid, cook, nurse, and nanny, yet that seems to be what our modern society demands of women.”
Schilling is adamant that women are expected to do all and be all, while society continues to instill the elusive goal of “having it all” as an attainable directive.
As an artist, Schilling’s compelling photographic work has evolved, but her current themes stay true to her first series, Vanishing Presence, created in 2009. “That series dealt with my lost sense of self as I struggled to reconcile my roles as a young wife and mother while also trying to remember the woman I was. The series was shot in black and white, mainly using film, and pointed the camera directly at myself and my family.”
She notes that where she once felt alone in her experience of feelings of “inadequacy, imbalance, and loss,” she realizes now that many of these feelings are universal among women.
With that in mind, she’s turned her artistic focus on that universality in series such as Wife, Mother, Woman, Trappings, and Lost and Found.
“I continue to work through the same issues, because I feel the issues remain relevant, maybe more now in our current political climate than even ten years ago. The style of work is quite different, as I use conceptualization and abstraction to explore gender and domestic issues, but the ideas remain the same,” she attests.
There’s a lot of wit and humor in Trappings of Domesticity, and a slightly skewed edge of the surreal. Schilling finds a balance in her subject, inspiring an exploration of expectations and the subverting of them. She also uses beautiful colors and evocative still-life images in this series
“Like most of my work, the ideas explored in Trappings of Domesticity are born from my feelings about my own life in relation to societal expectations. I live in a very traditional, predominantly conservative, middle-class suburb of Houston where I feel like I’m always trying, but never quite succeeding, to fit in. It’s kind of funny, in adolescence where a lot of kids struggle to fit in, I always found it pretty easy. Now as an adult, when logically I know that ‘fitting in’ isn’t really all that important, it somehow feels more so.”
Schilling says that this may be because of living in a conservative environment, being a mother and trying to keep her children out of the political fray, or her own self-image. Regardless, she notes “I feel that Trappings is speaking to all of those things. I am taking the ideas of what society and the media have taught us we’re supposed to be or supposed to have, the trappings of the ideal domestic life, the consumer goods we’re supposed to surround ourselves with, and I’m showing how women can literally become trapped by them and lose who they are.”
This new series is still a work in progress, as it evolves she expects viewers will see the emergence of a darker and surrealistic edge. Lost and Found is far more abstract, glorious in palette, soft, evocative, and mysterious. That series uses plants, flowers, detritus to create lush images.
It all began with feathers, according to Schilling. “Feathers which are traditionally seen as light, airy, fanciful and beautiful objects, had become the bane of my existence. I know that sounds a bit over-the-top, but it’s true. My husband and I married right after college and shortly after had our first of two children, so we never really had the chance to settle into our careers or buy nice things before focusing on taking care of our family. Finally, after being married for more than ten years, we bought our first piece of furniture that wasn’t a hand-me-down. It was exactly what I thought I wanted, a big, beautiful, expensive white couch. But then, mere hours after having it delivered, the couch began to expel feathers. They were literally a pain in the ass, poking us every time we tried to sit or lay down to relax, and creating a huge mess that looked like piles of dust balls all over the floor. One day when I was home alone, I started looking around in disgust at all the crap everywhere around me. Instead of just being depressed by it –as would often happen, or actually doing something about it to make it better –which rarely happened, I decided to photograph it,” she relates. “I wanted to take those little, relatively insignificant, pieces of trash and annoyances and turn them into something beautiful.” After that, she turned to other items such as abandoned candy wrappers, yogurt lids, torn-off pieces of granola bar packaging, the things that I always told my children to pick up and throw away but were inevitably always left behind for me to deal with. Then I started including the flower and plant material, again things that are supposed to bring beauty and joy to our lives but ultimately end up being something else we have to take care of and clean up after.”
She adds that she wanted to create beauty out of chaos, she purposely got close to her subjects and used her camera to throw them out of focus intending to turn something ugly and unacceptable into something more palatable and lovely. But at the same time, she began playing with scale, literally and figuratively blowing images out of proportion. “In making images of household trash that are both abstract and quite large, I am also taking the root of women’s work and turning it into something more akin to an abstract painting, another field traditionally dominated by men.”
With more of a documentary-feel, Schilling’s series Wife, Mother, Woman began almost by chance. “I walked into an art gallery in Houston to deliver a print from my Vanishing Presence series that I had sold to the owner when I noticed that her ‘perfect white cube’ space was anything but. I saw my own life reflected in the beautiful chaos swirling around her and was amazed at how calm and unaffected she seemed by it all.”
Internalizing mass and social media images about perfection, she notes that women feel as if they are failing if they cannot achieve this level of perfection. With that in mind, “It is important to me to show the true reality of women working to balance everything while not being ‘perfect.’ None of the images in this series are planned or staged. I am merely capturing what mothers have to deal with moment to moment in their daily lives.” Schilling is continuing this project, seeking new voices, and a greater variety of social, economic and racial situations to depict. She says, “This is important to me, because while I feel all mothers have to deal with very similar situations in terms of a child’s need for attention or throwing tantrums when they don’t get their way, the context and challenges surrounding them can be quite different and deserve recognition.”
The artist has recently received an offer to publish Wife, Mother, Woman, but as noted, wants to add more varied images and voices to the series, first. She is also continuing to expand her work on Trappings. And she has still more works planned which she says she’s excited about pursuing. “For the past year or so, I have also been gathering material to build what I’ve been thinking of as ‘Perfecthouse,’ focusing on the imposed ideas of perfection on women.” Relating to all women, beauty and chaos? Of course.