This visual section unites the work of Cara Judea Alhadeff, Sally Barker, Paula Chambers, the collaboration between Jessica Ackerman and Abby Fletcher, and two of my own photographs. The work spans media as diverse as photography, sculpture and drawing, and speaks of themes in relation to pregnancy, birth, maternal ambivalence, and the practicalities of being a 'mother artist'. Notions of the performative creep in through my work and the work of Judea Alhadeff. Both depict, albeit very differently, the subject of pregnancy. Chambers confronts experiences of motherhood through a lens of painful ambivalence, with suggestions of abuse. Ackerman and Fletcher, by contrast, present an altogether more joyful, although utterly fragmented, way of practicing art in the light of having had children. The work of Barker successfully unites many of the themes that this selection of work collectively raises. The sculpture, Suspended and Stitched, heavily aligns the mother with nature, as do my photographs - taken in collaboration with the sun and the moon - thus raising the recurrent problem of essentialism in art history1. Visible associations between women and nature have at times been considered fuel for reductive notions of the female sex. It now seems outdated, however, to claim that women and nature are synonymous but inferior. In all work discussed here, women are presented as active agents rather than passive objects, they are aware of past debates and subversion is at play as a new look is cast upon tradition. With such complexity introduced, Barker's use of wire thread to stitch stone together relates strongly to the pain knitted within pieces by Chambers. Furthermore, the large sculpture reveals - in line with Ackerman and Fletcher - that although there may be a need to work more humbly and in small scale when children are young (Barker originally made her 'nipple flowers' twenty years previously), that 'production' can, at a later date, return to be prolific and colossal.
The selection of Cara Judea Alhadeff's photographs that are on show here form part of a much larger series on the subject of pregnancy, called 'The Gestation Project'. Throughout the series, Alhadeff places the naked and fully fecund female body in man-made and very public spaces. Exemplifying ideas that the pregnant body is simultaneously one and two, intimate and public, hidden and on display, the women in the pictures occupy a site of multiple interests and investments for the individual and for the collective. Although staged somewhat, it is a sense of the unperformed, of liberation and comfort, that is transmitted most strikingly through these images. This is achieved most obviously when the women have been brought together in groups, as if like a pride of lionesses, when they are together, they feel stronger. Often depicted as 'creaturely' - as in Tropical Zoo and Matuni's - issues of 'essentialism' and the focus on female biology are raised. Looking at Red Room and Amoeba's it would seem reasonable to suggest that Alhadeff and her models perform naturist myths, and that in this way are simply playing in the space between nature and culture. Yet, in other works, and in particular in Lulu's, there is more of an alignment with the landscape that suggests that the bodies exist as an 'extension of, rather than as a 'construction in', nature. In this way the works share much in common with the Eden-esque mother-scape photographs of Justine Kurland.
As in my own practice, this interest in the 'natural' woman is only ever explored through the lens of knowledge and acknowledgement of problems encountered by women in their 'biological' role in the past. Although fully aware that the 'essential' and corporeal woman is equally a product of cultural and metaphor - for it is as impossible to cleanly divide nature from nurture - I disagree with notions that contemporary artists now always represent pregnancy as a rupturing of feminine and maternal norms rather than as a natural state. My Sun and Guided by the Moon do not contest my relationship to nature and are instead created through an attachment to it. Following an interview with the artist Kiki Smith, I realised that, like her, I had always been interested in exposing the strength in what have previously been considered to be demeaning aspects of 'femininity'. I feel that I am a stronger artist through identification with, rather than distancing from, nature. Unlike Alhadeff, I do not direct groups of other people in front of the camera, but work either alone or with my partner. The two photographs here are self-portraits; My Sun reveals a distinctive shadow, making it clear that I am interested in ideas of doubling, in the dialogue between my inner and outer self, and, in this case, in communication between me and my unborn child. Guided by the Moon recalls the work Ten Months by artist Susan Hiller and exposes an underlining preoccupation with the passing of time. Quite unlike the Barthian suggestion that time in a photograph is time lost forever, a photograph of a pregnant woman seems to suggest that time repeats again and again. Furthermore, a photograph of a pregnant woman naked under the light of the sun and the moon - like the 1968 oil painting by Monica Sjöö, God Giving Birth - becomes otherworldly and imbued with boundless potentiality.
The work of Sally Barker reveals a similar allegiance with nature. Her maternal body is transformed into a huge piece of broken stone. Perceived as a landscape split, the rock could signify the female body having just given birth; the crude stitching stirs associations with a photograph by Israeli artist, Elinor Carcucci, which shows the site of her belly having just given birth to twins by caesarean. The splitting could also bear reference, however, to the artist's relationships with her now grown children. As the latex nipple flowers were made twenty years prior to the sculpture in its entirety, time has an important message here. Barker's body is now beyond reproductive capacity, and she is no longer breast feeding and leaking. It is the monumental splitting that occurred at the time of her children's birth, however, that remains the seat of her inspiration. Her cast breasts - now past the nurturing demands of survival - have developed a life of their own. They remind the viewer of sea creatures and therefore suggest a comparison with the work of British Surrealist, Eileen Agar. Agar collected objects and debris from the beach and then 'made' 'natural' assemblages. There is a certain harmony that Barker projects and shares with Agar, as a woman sensitised by the landscape of her surroundings. There are also, however, traces of pain and ambivalence in the work of Barker. Like the performative photograph by Janine Antoi, Inhabit, in which the artist is suspended inside her daughter's dolls house, here Barker is hung in a way that recalls religious punishment and exposure, as well as stitched in a way that recalls ongoing pain and fragility. Is Barker pained and punished for new growth, or does the artist present old wounds and memories as yet unresolved?
Paula Chambers more obviously and immediately places her work within the discourse of 'maternal ambivalence'. Used as a form of self-flagellation by certain religious orders, Chambers uses stinging nettles to hand knit two painfully uncomfortable baby outfits. She enters into a tradition of other 'women artists' who have also subverted the benevolent processes of knitting and sewing into punishing and repressive acts. Marion Michell crochets equally ill-fitting baby garments using human hair, and has recently made a small house, titled My House of Howls, which bears reference to a bleeding womb (a red hair net spills out of the house door). Most famously, it was Louise Bourgeois who made visual the pains and frustrations of motherhood using stitching and cloth. Similar to For the Love of God, in that the clothes could potentially harm the child that wore them, Bourgeois too speaks of the 'bad' or 'unnatural mother' in her 1970 sculpture that bears resemblance to a mother and child voodoo doll punctured by pins. These works suggest that motherhood is not a natural state, and is instead connected to society, situation and individual moral decisions, and that this experience of motherhood can create unhappy embittered and unsatisfied women. My work questions this idea and considers that motherhood is a natural state, but that human beings have so neglected their relationship to nature that they have made the experience feel unnatural. Interestingly, for Bourgeois, Alice Neel, and perhaps even for Sally Barker, at a point when their own bodies were unable to reproduce, their interest in the subject of maternity was reinvigorated, lightened, and could, perhaps, be termed more 'natural'. At this stage in her development as an artist, Chambers remains with the more sociologically and psychologically fragmented view of motherhood. Her bedsteads expose little girls doing disturbing deeds on the covers of vintage sewing patterns. Decorative and colourful to glance at, scenes that seem nostalgic and innocent in fact become disturbing to view on closer inspection. Hinting towards abuse and failures in the system of care, the work of Chambers closely recalls the ornate vases and intricate tapestries by Grayson Perry. As beds though, illustrated with scenes of potential harm and titled with an eerie reference to 'daddy', the notion of parent as protector is even further perverted.
The collaboration between Ackerman and Fletcher reveals that life is transformed having had children, but they respond practically, deciding to work in new ways rather than to remain static and to focus on struggle. Quite hilariously, the team of mothers and children intended to make a film about birthing positions with the father placed at centre stage. The film, never realised, became a kind of 'non-art', perhaps comparable to erased drawings by Willem de Kooning, or even scribbled out portraits by one's children. The visible result of the intended film-making session became instead a drawing documenting the failed process by Ackerman; the drawing actually looks at how a parent feels, running from here to there and back again, with something happening in every corner. And although, in a way, only a sketch, the preparation for something never to come, 7 positions in 2 hours, powerfully reveals what in the past the maternal ideal has worked so strenuously to deny â that of the agency and potential power of women as maternal subjects. Despite being unable to reach states of completion, the artists are undeniably active. They are active as both mothers and as artists, but quite unusually, perhaps being more honest than most, they admit that for the time being they are artists interrupted, artists on pause. They make the most of gaps to work, and remain resolute to dissect experiences of childcare from within, rather than accepting outdated and external observed versions on the subject. The drawing warmly invites the children of the artists to become part of the process of art-making at this stage in everybody's lives; the collaboration recognises that it is perhaps not possible to be a 'good artist' or a 'good mother' if you do not combine the two pursuits. Furthermore, it at once subtly and forcefully suggests that to wait to make artwork, especially when you illustrate this waiting, is by no means to stop.
1. Johanna Drucker writes in October 71: Feminist Issues (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, Winter 1995), p.19, how she is sick of the "good theory people" and the "bad essentialists" and sees the current field of art history in much more complex terms. Carol Armstrong comments in her essay, 'Francesca Woodman: A Ghost in the House of the "Woman Artist,"' in Armstrong, Carol and de Zegher, Catherine (eds.) Women Artists at the Millennium (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 2006), p.357, that all of the good critical work on Woodman's practice has focused on her indoor rather than outdoor work. This way it is easier for theorists and historians to avoid the artist's attraction towards old myths of the "feminine" and the "essentialist" notions of woman and femaleness that are too problematic for constructivist beliefs.