AJ Dehany and Alix Mortimer saw MOTHERSHIP at The Sawmills in London. The show is running at Bruton Art Factory until 3 February.
MOTHERSHIP is a group exhibition curated by Elizabeth Byrne and Caro Halford exploring and celebrating the theme of the ‘mother artist’. The fourteen artists have varied practices in drawing, film, installation, painting, photography, print, sculpture, sound and textiles, and each artist is a mother. Co-curator Elizabeth Byrne says “being an artist and a mother both involve physical often unwaged work, as well as forms of immaterial affective labour that require emotional connection, intelligence, love and caregiving. They both demand that your soul to be at work, turning yourself inside out, where the body and mind are sites of production in the same way as in the studio; as a consequence, the two are intrinsically linked through their similarities.”
Co-curator Caro Halford’s sound installation I Keep Losing Balance dramatises the internal conflicts of the mother-artist. A bedraggled rug of tufted wool with embroidered lettering “I KEEP LOSING BALANCE” sites a three-hour recorded monologue, an oneiric sonic texture of childishly probing questions (“Is this disobedient?”), telling adult-Freudian comments (“Examine… the father!”), and self-reflexive touches (“an obsessive is informing us about useless objects”): the id, ego, and superego of artistic development. It presents the uneasy formation of the artist’s self through her family relationships: “you… comment… others… shy away. And I look at myself and repeat again and again….” Motherhood as expressed here is a constant self-interrogation, a battle with the self to create and defend identity.
Motherhood and artistry can also involve ploughing on thanklessly through tedious, repetitive practices. Susan Martin’s Breast Express is a recording of the pulsating beat of a breast milk expressing machine, an unfamiliar rhythmic sound like a didgeridoo or a Jew’s harp. It is an artistic expression of motherhood literally through the expression of milk. The single channel video loop of Annamaria Kardos’s Reel Time fixates endlessly on the trundling progress of an artefact that might represent roundabout, buggy, toy or primary school furnishing – whatever it is, it’s empty.
Resonant elements recur – prams, wallpaper, ladies in pink, flowers, often tweaked or subverted. In Julia Warr’s painting Pram the flat pixellated lily-white silhouette of mother and child fuse together with a blood-red pram in a dark wood, recalling Paula Rego’s updatings of folk tales via Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber stories. Visceral fear is expressed here, juxtaposing the messy, mythic, oneiric and psychological force of myth against the cold, geometric and scientific nature of the “modernist grid” tendency in contemporary art. Elizabeth Byrne’s sculptural installation Anemone Lanterns sets imagery traditionally represented as ‘soft’ and ‘feminine’ against the hardness of modern materials. Brightly coloured images of flowers are projected against multiple revolving sheets of perspex, which has the effect of fragmenting them, playing with ideas of solidity, ephemerality and mutability. The flowers will wither, plastic will not. As the discs spin around each other the work is never the same from moment to moment.
A disturbing theme is the distortion and erasure of the female form, particularly the face. Nadine Mahoney’s photograph Girl reconfigures the ‘green goddess’ as a stalk of sprouts on human legs. In the solid colour fields of her canvases Rogue and Quiet Revolution the female forms are hard to discern. State of Mind outlines a heavily pregnant figure in bright pink, with another face sketched over her face, perhaps the face of the child about to be born: expressing the possibility of his identity erasing hers. Hester Finch’s painting series The Portrait of a Lady has flat paintwork and a subdued mid-century palette of greens and browns and soft pink for flesh. In only one portrait does the Lady have a head, and in that her face is covered – a depiction of how we depict women.
Elsewhere articles and ephemera are exploded and displayed. In Sarah Longworth-West’s Painting Floor Assemblage bits and bobs both natural and manmade are spread out on a recycled blanket like finds from an archaeological dig. We are invited to guess at whether this signifies abandonment, curation or recovery of some life/lives represented by the items. The four large canvases of Janet Currier’s Big pink bed sheet 1, 2, 3 & 4 figure the domestic gone wrong, arranged in a cube in the middle of the gallery as if following a food-fight the pink wallpapered interior walls of a room had been exploded to form the outside of a room with no way in or out.
Exclusion is another recurrent idea. Julia Miranda’s Two Doors confronts us upon our first entry into the gallery space. Two doors hinge off each other, leading nowhere, covered in photos of female domestic staff and indeterminate fertility symbols. Suki Chan’s upside down projection Obscura has a claustrophobic vanishing point reflecting those moments in which motherhood – life, perhaps – can seem like a dark room looking out. Exclusion also forms the basis of Karen McLean’s Empire, a striking intersectional encounter depicting, on thirteen metres of altered Imperial wallpaper, colonial oppression in the Caribbean: scolds bridles, stacked bodies of slaves in ships, branding tools.
The curators of MOTHERSHIP are concerned with gender imbalances in the art world and society as a whole. The role of a mother is an undervalued form of labour. The show also poses an implicit question: do fathers experience art-making through the prism of fatherhood, and if not why not? Perhaps the answers are uncomfortable. Our traditional archetype of an artist is not only a man, it’s a man with no family ties. Centuries of bad boys, roues, sequestered geniuses creating Art in towers, studios and garages whose ecosystem – food, cleaning, childcare – is often supplied by offstage females. Here we have artists not only kicking against the disadvantages their status as mothers brings, but exploring its art-enriching synergistic properties. The vitality and variousness of the works on display at MOTHERSHIP are a welcome recognition of the commitment, courage, organisation and resilience required to be a mother artist.
All photos by Jamie Lau – All Rights Reserved
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AJ Dehany & Alix Mortimer
AJ Dehany & Alix Mortimer are writers based in London, UK.
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