On ViewFort Houston Gallery (moved online due to COVID-19)
Painting at Night
March 7 – March 28, 2020
“You can’t paint at night in your kitchen and hope to be a good artist,” a performance space director once quipped to the New York Times. This became the impetus for the defiant title of Painting at Night, an exhibition of artist/mothers who have, in fact, been making art in their kitchens at night, squeezing in studio time during their children’s naps or after work, and finding spaces to make art even when unable to travel to artist residencies because they must care for young ones at home. Historically the professional art world has depreciated motherhood—forcing artists to choose between careers and motherhood or hide their status as mothers lest their work be dismissed1—but a new wave of exhibitions2 and online communities3 over the last five years or so has been challenging this. Painting at Night, juried by Allison Reimus, was organized under the auspices of Kaylan Buteyn’s Artist/Mother Podcast, which since early 2019 has been building support for artist/mothers not only through extended interviews with artists, but also retreats, meet-ups in cities across the US, critique groups led by artist mentors, an online book club, and now this inaugural exhibition.
In her catalog essay Reimus argues that embedded in the kitchen table remark is a patriarchal myth that separates “the domestic from serious artistic inquiry,” a myth which the Painting at Night’s call for entries asked artists to resist and reject. Many did so by making domestic labor the subject of their work, such as Danila Rumold in Stove-Top Burner Print (2019). A golden-brown impression of a gas stove burner is seared into sheet after sheet of Kozo paper, adhered together four abreast to form a scroll hung high on the wall; the 15 foot long piece spills over a plinth and onto the floor, still partially unfurled. The seemingly endless number of prints speaks to the interminable labor of cooking for one’s family—akin to the breasts and eggs covering the walls and ceilings of Susan Frazier, Vicki Hodgetts, and Robin Weltsch’s Nurturant Kitchen in the Feminist Art Program’s historic collaboration Womanhouse (1971).
Sarah Irvin and Tracy Marie Taylor similarly bear witness to the interminability of maternal labor, while also demonstrating that capitalist society lacks a language for understanding this unpaid essential work. For X Stamp No. 3 (2019), Irvin, who is also the founder of the online Artist Parent Index, uses an x-stamp she once used to meticulously mark “left” or “right” breast on timecards/invoices that documented her breastfeeding sessions in Infant Feeding Log (2019) (not on view). Gone “overboard” in the artist’s words, the innumerable blue x’s stamped on paper no longer refer to specific tasks but instead to the impossibility of archiving all this labor. Parodying the corporate fetish for big data, Taylor transferred a computer data visualization of her 12 months of breast pumping into the moving and tactile circular quilt While I Was Away: A Data Visualization of the 63 Gallons of Breastmilk I Pumped Over One Year (2019), its radial lines interrupted by dripping strands of milk white beads each representing in inches the ounces collected per session.
Feeding is a recurring topic in Painting at Night, especially as artist/mothers try to navigate conflicting social messages. Often depicted as an idyllic scene in art, breastfeeding can in fact often be difficult or impossible for some mothers, leading to feelings of guilt, as demonstrated by Katherine Duclos’s Thirteen Nipples (2020) a tiny fragile tower of rubber nipples cast in cement. Part of a larger series of work titled “Low Supply,” the piece expresses, in the artist’s words, “The emotional weight that surrounded feeding my baby, the anxieties and feelings of inadequacy, mourning the breastfeeding experience I had hoped for, and struggling to process all of it…” This feeling of inadequacy is reinforced by a society that says “breast is best.” However, mothers who breastfeed in public are also shamed in the US, and Facebook censors brelfies—breastfeeding selfies—when the areola is visible.4 Cassie Arnold’s Mom Bra #1 (2020), a bra-shaped sweater designed to appear like bare breasts flaunts this social taboo. Catherine Rinehart’s FED (2018) a found quilt onto which the artist embroidered “breast FED” on one side and “bottle FED” on the other, is hung like a political banner waving equal support for both.
The social pressures around breastfeeding are part of a larger problem Joan B. Wolf has called “total motherhood,” the unrealistic expectation that a mother should suppress her needs, wants, and desires for the sake of her family. Jill Lavetsy’s graphite on Yupo drawing Home Body (2020), set amidst a kitchen stove and sink, laundry basket and shelves of books, presents the blurred mother literally and figuratively in states of erasure surrounded by children and infants competing for her attention. Similarly, Alison Chen’s Mama Gone (2019), an HD video of her child painting over her photograph speaks to this erasure of maternal identity.
Eclipsed maternal subjectivity is recovered in works like I Am a House (2019), a veristic graphite self-portrait by the founder of the maternal art publication MILKED, Lee Nowell-Wilson, in which, although she is doubled-over with her head between her calves, her visible face and larger-than-life scale give her a commanding presence. In Annie Brito Hodgin’s painting Muse (2019), which recalls the surrealist paintings of Leonora Carrington, the protagonist lies her head on a table, her serpentine hair coiling, and casts a sideways glance at the silhouetted raven on the window behind her. A quill piercing her hand is a painful reminder of the personal sacrifice required to create, especially for mothers painting at night.
The nocturnal theme, as well as both the conflict and synthesis of maternal and artistic labor at the heart of Painting at Night, is captured by Lauren Rice’s Bad Moon Rising (XO) (2019). Against a collage of paper diamond shapes and diagonal lines with colorful, glowing moons at their intersections, a drama plays out as washes of turquoise and magenta are subsumed by tumultuous black brushstrokes. Paired parenthetically with the shorthand for kisses and hugs, the title suggests care in a time of apocalypse—eerily prophetic of the COVID-19 crisis which cut short Painting at Night’s physical exhibition in Nashville. However, the exhibition’s message could not be more relevant, as the crisis of inequity in our childcare system during the pandemic made clear that those who care for young children in or outside of the home are essential workers, as Mierle Laderman Ukeles similarly argued in her Manifesto for Maintenance Art (1969). Bringing visibility to the diverse experiences and practices of artist/mothers, Painting at Night marks another step toward an overdue reckoning of the American society’s and the artworld’s regard for the labor of motherhood on which it depends.
- This conflict is documented in edited volumes including Rachel Epp Buller’s Reconciling Art and Mothering (2012) and Chernick and Klein’s The M Word: Real Mothers in Contemporary Art (2011). See also the Resource Library page of Sarah Irvin’s Artist Parent Index for scholarship on maternal art: http://www.artistparentindex.com/collections/show/4
- Some of these exhibitions include: Labor: Motherhood & Art in 2020, NMSU Art Museum; The Art of Breastfeeding: Modern Narratives of Motherhood (2019), MF Gallery, Brooklyn; New Maternalisms, 2012 Toronto; 2014 Santiago; 2016 Edmonton. See also the Exhibition Archive page of API: http://www.artistparentindex.com/collections/show/2
- See for example: Lauren Frances Evans’s Artist/Parent/Academic https://laurenfrancesevans.com/artistparentacademic; Christa Donner’s Cultural ReProducers https://www.culturalreproducers.org/
- This regulation of the maternal body lampooned in artist Micol Hebron’s ongoing Male Nipple Pasty project (2014-present). https://www.malenipplepasty.com/