Whitehot Magazine

Twenty Artist-Parents Use the Iconography of Empathy to Expand the Paradigm of Family Constructs at The Landing Gallery

Matt Bollinger, Sick Night, 2020 Flashe and acrylic on canvas, 20 x 16 in. Photo by Charles White/JWPictures.com. Courtesy of The Landing Gallery.

New Iconography: Artists Raising Children

Curated by Daniel Gerwin

The Landing Gallery

March 27 through May 15, 2021 

By LITA BARRIE, May 2021

The model of the intact, heteronormative nuclear family is no longer the standard because it is being expanded to allow others to enjoy parenthood. More single people raise children alone, 25% of parents are stay-at-home dads, remarried couples combine being both biological and step-parents, and gay and trans couples can adopt or use new technologies for artificial insemination to become parents. The nuclear family construct was socially engineered with large advertising campaigns after World War II when women were convinced to leave the workforce, marry, and have children in newly created 1950s suburbs because so many male soldiers died in the war. Isolated from extended family residences, without support, the freedom to have careers, or the financial independence they had during the war, women suffered from “suburban neurosis.” This misunderstood female psychological illness was given its name by Betty Frieden in The Feminine Mystique (1963) which sparked the second wave of feminism in the United States.  

As feminists fought for gender equality, women increasingly returned to the workforce and more men with flexible schedules became stay-at-home dads in an expansion of restrictive gender roles. An increasing number of marriages ended in divorce, making shared custody the new normal. The LGBT community fought for legal marriage and the right to adopt and hire surrogates to create further different norms. Last year, the COVID-19 lockdown forced more parents to homeschool, and more fathers began to share child-caring and teaching roles that were once the sole responsibility of women. Economic hardship has also forced more young families to move back in with their parents, while many others are buying larger homes or renovating existing homes with additional rooms to create extended family residences. The 1950s nuclear family dream which led to the postwar baby boom clearly did not make people happy or healthy, and today there is more fluidity in family structures - even embracing new medical technology for trans children. Toxic masculinity from the Trump era has been rejected in favor of empathic masculinity exemplified by President Joe Biden, and his role as a compassionate father figure is gaining increasing admiration. 

Nevertheless, the bogus myth that artists cannot be serious - and certainly not great - if they raise children is still kept alive by outdated, romanticized notions of artists as saints, monks or hermits. Or, artists are ridiculed as drunks, drug-addicts, promiscuous party-goers, irresponsible degenerates or childish dependents. Female artists certainly could not be taken seriously if they raised children - even by other feminists - illustrated by The Women’s House in downtown L.A., where children were banned, but not dogs, as recently as 1972. 

Loie Hollowell, Point of Entry (blood-orange moon over orange sac), 2017. Oil paint, acrylic, sawdust, and high-density foam on linen mounted on pane, 48 x 36 x 5 in. Photo by Charles White/JWPictures.com. Courtesy of The Landing Gallery.

These fallacies about restrictive lives ignored the way parenting can broaden an artist’s perspective. They are also ignorant about the ancient conception of art as empathy - which helps artist-parents. German philosopher Rudolf Lotze first coined the term “empathetic” or einfuhlung (1858) to explain “in feeling” - to describe the way we “feel into” artworks. This was derived from the Greek concept of empathetic (em “in” + pathos “feeling”). The aesthetic philosophy of empathy was applied extensively to the visual arts by German philosopher/art historian Robert Vischer (1878), then philosopher/psychologist Theodor Lipps (1903).  Sigmund Freud expanded the psychological significance of empathy to explain the dynamics of putting oneself in another’s position. But for decades, the art world has abandoned empathy in favor of cynicism and sensationalism which attracts more attention in glib art discourse. 

Neuroscientists recognize empathy as the evolutionary basis of human cooperation which is hard-wired in the brain (although psychopaths and narcissists lack this empathy circuit).  So, it is only logical that empathetic artists might actually be the most devoted parents and teachers in the pandemic era of co-operation - drawing valuable source material and enriching their work from watching their children play. Many artists like Paul McCarthy and Lita Albuquerque have collaborated with their artistic children; or like Andy Moses, Alison and Lesley Saar have been raised by famous artists (Ed Moses and Betye Saar). I was also raised by an artist-mother who took me to artists’ studios from the age of ten, where I learned to converse with artists about their artwork - or great artists in art books they shared – and because they actually listened to me, it was natural that I became an art critic. Like child’s play, art is made to share and enjoy, which makes the artist-and-child relationship a beneficial symbiosis. Rather than dissuading artists from raising children, perhaps we should persuade more parents to involve their children in art-play and art-talk - and who can do this better than artists?

Daniel Gerwin curated this refreshing group exhibition of 20 artist-parents after ten years of considering what it means for him to be a stay-at-home artist-dad, raising two children who inspire his artwork and art writing (for Artforum, Hyperallergic and Brooklyn Rail). During the pandemic lockdown, Gerwin realized the timeliness of his group exhibition idea which began with Eleanor Antin’s perspective on her relationship with her mother, through excerpts of their conversations in her iconic feminist text-based artwork, Domestic Peace (1971-2).  Gerwin then began discussions with Catherine Opie, who broke the mold as a married lesbian mom with her sensitive photographs of her young son. Oliver and Stingray (2004) is a poignant image of a baby in a bath, which is so tender, it recalls Pierre Bonnard’s post-impressionist domestic scenes. Gerwin then had discussions with McCarthy about including his canonical video, Family Tyranny/Cultural Soup (1987) which explores the artist’s fear of turning into a patriarchal figure in a dark self-parody, referencing Disney as the ultimate patriarch. 

Alison Saar Lunarseas, Sea of Fecundity, 2008 Bronze, edition of unique variations, 27 x 20 x 8 in. Photo by Charles White/JWPictures.com. Courtesy of The Landing Gallery.

After enlisting these three major artists to include their iconic works as touchstones in a group show, he started talking to other artists about making new work for the exhibition. He found a rapport with Gerard O’Brien, owner of The Landing Gallery who installed this exhibition beautifully and arranged for the consigned pieces.

This gem exhibition explores numerous perspectives of family, starting from artist’s view of their mothers. Eleanor Antin's ground-breaking feminist perspective is balanced by Edgar Arcenaux’s male perspective in his films An Arrangement Without Tormentors (2003-2006) and I Told Jesus My Name (2012). A second perspective is on artist’s anxieties about their parental role: McCarthy’s noir take on his paternal angst is balanced with Patty Chang’s Things I am Scared of (2018) that repurposes a quilt - which usually signifies comfort - into a repository of her maternal unease. 

A third perspective is on domestic daily life as a parent, seen in Matt Bollinger’s intimate paintings of fathers cradling their baby sons. His Sick Night (2020) and Movie Night (2020) are narratives that depict humble scenes with a powerful visual impact of cherishment.  Harry Dodge’s witty sound video Untitled is inspired by a home movie of his little son wearing an amusing homemade robot costume. The couple Matt Rich and Victoria Fu collaborated to create a “psychic apron” in a humorous take on a common signifier of domestic labor. Gerwin’s own sensitively calibrated collaged-abstraction, Gates of Sleep (2020) views his children’s slumber as a world of imaginative dreams.

A fourth perspective is on the fecundity of the pregnant maternal body, explored in Loie Hollowell’s stunning abstraction, Point of Entry (blood-orange moon over orange sac), and Alison Saar’s bronze sculptures with branches extending from breasts in Lunarseas: Sea of Nectar (2008) and branches extending from a pregnant belly in Lunarseas: Sea of Fecundity (2008) to signify fonts of new life in the most visceral way. Heater Rasmussen’s Untitled (Leg and snake squash on pillow) (2018) is a witty take on snake-like limbs, while Untitled (Zucchinis and belly on blue) (2017) draws humorous parallels between zucchinis and legs surrounding a pregnant belly. 

Catherine Opie Oliver and Stingray, 2004 C-print Edition 1 of 5, 2 AP 16 x 20 in. Photo by Charles White/JWPictures.com. Courtesy of The Landing Gallery.

A fifth perspective is the political concerns parents feel about the world their children will inherit, explored by Catherine Opie in Purple Flyer (2005) which focuses on the importance of electoral participation to protect her child’s future.  Amir H. Fallah addresses the values that parents pass on to their children in his painting, We Do Not Own the Freshness of the Air (2021). 

The shared perspectives, themes and artistic tropes of these intriguing artworks create throughlines with a powerful subtextual message: we need a more expansive language to discuss parenthood, as well as a new iconography in art to create a more fluid, forward-looking paradigm of family constructs. As Gerwin told me when we discussed the curatorial premise, “the myth of the artist-genius is simplistic and reductive,” because “there are a million different paths to make great art.” 

This exhibition has a bellwether quality because in the post-pandemic era we need to ask new questions about art’s place in our new co-operative social lives. Empathy entered psychology via 19th century aesthetic philosophy, so perhaps we need more empathetic art to reflect our lives today. WM

Lita Barrie

Lita Barrie is a freelance art critic based in Los Angeles. Her writing appears in Hyperallergic, Riot Material, Apricota Journal, Painter’s Table, ArtnowLA, HuffPost, Painter’s Table, Artweek.L.A, art ltd and Art Agenda. In the 90s Barrie wrote for Artspace, Art Issues, Artweek, Visions andVernacular. She was born in New Zealand where she wrote a weekly newspaper art column for the New Zealand National Business Review and contributed to The Listener, Art New Zealand, AGMANZ, ANTIC, Sites and Landfall. She also conducted live interviews with artists for Radio New Zealand’s Access Radio. Barrie has written numerous essays for art gallery and museum catalogs including: Barbara Kruger (National Art Gallery New Zealand) and Roland Reiss ( Cal State University Fullerton). Barrie taught aesthetic philosophy at Claremont Graduate University, Art Center and Otis School of Art and Design. In New Zealand, Barrie was awarded three Queen Elizabeth 11 Arts Council grants and a Harkness grant for art criticism. Her feminist interventions are discussed in The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand and an archive of her writing is held in The New Zealand National Library, Te Puna Matauranga Aotearoa.

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