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Motherhood and Materiality: Artists Consider Their Altered, Cluttered Surroundings

Calida Rawles, "Chrysalis" | Courtesy of the artist
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There’s a long and glorious tradition of artists, especially those with a penchant for assemblage, turning to their immediate surroundings for the materials with which to make their work. Think of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg walking around the block of Canal Street near their studio gathering discarded things and making work with them for the rest of the day or Arman and others affixing paintbrushes or spent pigment tubes to the canvas. Andy Goldsworthy always. Betye Saar and washboards, Tracey Emin and her bedsheets, Andrea Zittel and her mail-order cardboard boxes. Artists from Skip Arnold to Jason Rhoades have relocated the entirety of their hoarder-like studios to museums and galleries as performative, immersive, systems-sculpture archives. Material surroundings are muses to many.

So when an artist becomes a parent, specifically a mom, why not expect the same kinds of investigations, with the same quirky character as all found-object art — the original use backstories of objects and materials are a vehicle for inherent historical narrative content. When transformed, that meaning is exponentially amplified. Here are six contemporary Los Angeles artists who are inspired to make art that investigates the existential qualities of motherhood as a human experience through the practice of wrangling and re-purposing the tons of random stuff that comes with parenting — from stray toys to nursing pads, playground rides, and sometimes, actual children.

Calida Rawles is a painter and mixed media artist who has always been interested in the way race and gender operate in society. Then she became a mom. Noticing the inevitable changes in her body as well as her perspective on global and societal events through the experiences of pregnancies and parenting, she undertook a series of visceral, yet increasingly abstract, portraits of herself and her family, swimming and submerged in crystal blue water. She makes strong connections between flesh and land, spirit and liquid, aura and magic, pattern and image. But along the way, a whole other part of her brain became awestruck by the sheer magnitude of bulk-buy baby stuff that had accumulated in her home and, somehow, her studio. She made a bit of cheeky work about the fantasy of the freedom to misbehave — but along the way she also contrived a singular, perfect masterpiece. “Liquid Gold” is an epic wall sculpture made of nursing pads and breast pump tubes, whose oblong field of delicate white petals, rosy aureole swell, and suggestion of leaking mother’s milk, occupies its space with a luminous, hilarious grandeur that evokes both Robert Irwin and Jay Defeo.

Calida Rawles, "Chrysalis" | Courtesy of the artist
Calida Rawles, "Chrysalis" | Courtesy of the artist

Annina Rüst’s performative video work “Bad Mother / Good Mother adaptively re-purposed a breast pump machine as a digital, percussive sound generator. While the artist live-remixes audio and video bytes of men saying stupid things about women, beats and licks, and the rhythm of her cyborg-like, glow-lighted breasts pulsate. The breast pump has a drone-jazz solo about halfway through. Images flashing on the screen include censored breast-feedings at the workplace and in public. Referring to her overall practice as dealing with “feminist technology,” Rüst investigates and satirizes the fraught terrain of how motherhood functions in society and the mainstream workplace. Hint: it’s awkward.

Annina Rüst's "Bad Mother / Good Mother" | Courtesy of the artist
Annina Rüst's "Bad Mother / Good Mother" | Courtesy of the artist

Bari Ziperstein’s 2017 “Fair Trade” project installation was constructed during a residency at the Art, Design, & Architecture Museum at UC Santa Barbara. The final exhibition featured a panoply of new works in several mediums, along with both specific narrative inspirations and primary source materials culled from the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Wende Museum of Cold War History. With her own practice centered in both painting and sculpture, especially ceramic and mixed media displayed in evocative, expository vignettes, Ziperstein encountered historical objects at both institutions that were embedded with societal attitudes toward the status of women, and in particular mothers, in society. This ranged from the protective to the domineering, the adoring to the abusive, the alluring to the frightening, from adulation and abasement. Including traditional Samurai shields and helmets in the collection at LACMA, as well as archives of posters and propaganda at the Wende, Ziperstein was moved to transform and transpose these motifs into a series of new ceramic vessels, fabric and leather sculptures, and quasi-functional design objects, all of which represent details and denials of feminine physique and consciousness — most especially the problematic iconography and socioeconomic portrayals of motherhood — which are revealed as neither ancient nor even old-school, but perniciously, inexplicably relevant and ongoing in the present.

Bari Ziperstein, "Fair Trade" | Courtesy of the artist
Bari Ziperstein, "Fair Trade" | Courtesy of the artist

Ching Ching Cheng works with the textiles and other materials of domestic life (sheets, cribs, blankets, aprons), reconfiguring some into architectural abstract sculptures and using others as props in her ongoing series of self-portraits with her toddler-daughter. The artist and her child are seen in various states of intimacy and distance, their bonds already seen to be stretching by the child’s need for adventure and independence, the mother/artist both celebrating and resisting the process of her individuation. For artist Andrea Chung, the sporadic inclusion of the contours of, for example, toy robots in the otherwise organic, natural-world imagery of her cyanotypes is the direct result of encouraging her young son to “help” her at her home studio, which usually devolves into playtime pretty quickly. One day, an accidental Transformer left on a sun-drying print created a witty juxtaposition that Chung found fascinating, and her son has been her sometime-collaborator ever since.

Ching Ching Cheng, "Letting Go" series | Courtesy of the artist
Ching Ching Cheng, "Letting Go" series | Courtesy of the artist

Also acknowledging the proliferation of children’s toys in her personal space and the presence of her daughter in the studio, are Courtney Kessel’s performative sculptural pieces such as “You and Me (Parts 1 + 2),” as well as “In Balance With” and “Performing Visibility.” The former pieces show the artist and her daughter dancing in pigment-soled shoes, creating an automatic, actionist mark-making, joyfully, in the form of an abstract field. The latter pieces and related works acknowledge the sculptural mass of accumulated “baby” objects, with a subseries unfolding on a seesaw, both as stationary and kinetic display devices. “In Balance With” was installed and performed as part of the salient “New Maternalisms: Redux,” at the FAB Gallery, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada in 2016. In her artist’s statement, Kessel articulates something of a rallying cry for this whole segment of the art-making community when she explains, “In partial protest, I am putting the mother in the gallery. She is not the idealized mother painted with glowing beams of light smiling down at her child, but the real, subjective, elated, grumpy, sexy, frustrated, proud mother who wishes to express herself in that space, not to be spoken for.”

Courtney Kessel, "In Balance With" | Courtesy of the artist
Courtney Kessel, "In Balance With" | Courtesy of the artist

Top Image: Calida Rawles, "Chrysalis" | Courtesy of the artist 

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