On ViewFriends Indeed
October 20 – December 17, 2021
Mother and Child, curated by Micki Meng, gathers the works of 17 artists who square timeless iconography of motherhood with the immediacy of touch. The exhibition includes what Tina Campt calls “haptic images”—paintings and photographs that are touched by the subjects they capture and encounter, and touch those who view them as well.1 In her photolithograph I Made Space for a Good Man (2009), Deborah Willis recalls being told as an undergraduate at the Philadelphia College of Art that: “You’re taking up a good man’s space, you should not be in this program. All you’re going to do is get married, get pregnant, have a baby and a good man could have been in your seat.” Willis rearranges her professor’s violent language into a proud espousal of motherhood and turns the false impression of scarcity into abundance. (And she has passed down her teaching of “love overrules” to her son Hank Willis Thomas, who exhibited a light installation by the same name at Friends Indeed Gallery earlier this year.) Deana Lawson’s self-portrait, too, establishes the mother as Maker. The camera facilitates this becoming.2 In The Beginning (2019), she fixes her gaze on her child who has come wet- and wide-eyed into the world while her mother rests a hand on her forehead. In the beginning was the mother.
Jesse Mockrin’s Mother and Child I and II (2021) reference Late Renaissance Madonna and Child paintings but defer the tragedies therein. She crops the meetings of hands from Agnolo Bronzino’s Christ's Descent into Limbo (1552) and Bronzino’s follower’s Madonna and Child with the Infant Saint John (c.1540-60) and imbues them with the long-limbed grace of Parmigianino. She removes the context of limbus puerorum (children’s limbo) from the prior and the fruit of redemption, for which Christ’s sacrifice must be the price, from the latter. Focusing on the “nowness” of the mother and child’s contact, Mockrin averts both past and future deaths. Not only does Mockrin forestall mortality in her paintings, but she also throws the boundaries of the self into question. It is ambiguous to whom the hip belongs in Mother and Child I—a con-fusion reflective of the pregnant mother’s permeable subjectivity: it is impossible to know where the mother begins and where the child ends when the child is bone of the mother’s bones and flesh of her flesh.
The tethered relation between mother and child is also evident in Sanya Kantarovsky’s Vasilisa (2021). Like Louise Bourgeois’s gouache paintings, Kantarovsky’s combination of oil with watercolor conveys the fluid phenomenology of motherhood. The mother and child leak into and stain each other. They share the same solvent. Their dialogic relation is not all nourishment, however; Kantarovsky communicates a morbid and biting tenderness— reminiscent of Janine Antoni’s Umbilical (2000)—through the circulation of hair. In our mutual vulnerability, how can I be fed by your hair, and won’t you choke on mine?
Tidawhitney Lek witnesses the uneasy love of the mother in American Family (2021). In Lek’s painting, the weight of survival and the intergenerational memory of the Khmer Rouge manifest as manicured hands that variously tell the mother to take respite from her job at the garment factory, from sewing the American dream that is not the opposite of but imbricated with the reason for her escape; to comfort the child reading about the acquittals of police officers who had brutally beaten Rodney King; and to offer a rose that the flower in the sidewalk will one day grow into. The hands understand that time is a circle: the crescent moon over the sea is the harvest moon outside the window, and Kyle Rittenhouse is acquitted on all counts as though the Los Angeles Times article was not written thirty years ago but today. In the words of Lucille Clifton: Mama / mama / if we are nothing / why / should we spare / the neighborhood / mama / mama / who will be next and / why should we save / the pictures.3 The doorknob keeps growing higher, and we don’t know if we will ever leave this inside-out house and reach a future that keeps falling short of its promise, that keeps demanding our subjugation. The mother, heavy with history, guides us by the light of her candle to find the shimmer in the concrete, to twist monstrosity into beauty, and to bend trauma into intimacy.