Andrea Chung in Culture Type 5.18.18

In a New Documentary, 4 Los Angeles Area Artists Explore the Creative and Practical Implications of Motherhood


DOES MOTHERHOOD ALTER an artist’s practice or change her work and approach to creativity? It’s a question rarely discussed publicly that a new documentary takes on and addresses directly.

“You have very significant successful artists and critics who are on record saying they personally feel that if you are an artist and a mother, you are either a bad artist or you are a bad mother,” said artist Rebecca Campbell, a mother of three. “These are people I know, who’ve been in my studio and that’s a hard thing to take.”

In an art world where gender equity is a major issue with women experiencing far fewer opportunities for gallery representation, exhibitions, catalogs, and museum acquisitions, and less media coverage and exponentially lower prices at auction, the subject of motherhood is left largely unexplored. Even as the conversation around the gender gap has increasingly come to the fore, the topic of motherhood remains on the margins.

“Artist and Mother” offers a timely discussion of motherhood that is both intellectual and personal. Artists, curators, and critics examine the issue through both its visual depictions in historic and contemporary art and its real-world implications—how becoming a mother has affected the work and careers of artists.

Scheduled to air June 12, “Artist and Mother” is a new episode in the series called Artbound from KCET, a public media channel serving Southern and Central California. Artbound is an Emmy Award-winning series that delves into the life, work and creative methods of an array of arts and culture figures. Available to view now online (and above), “Artist and Mother” profiles four Los Angeles area artists who are also mothers—Campbell, Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, Andrea Chung, and Tanya Aguiñiga.

“I would be dishonest if I didn’t say there’s part of me that’s hesitant about being on a documentary about women artists who are mothers because I would like you to be here because I am an artist,” said Campbell.

“We’re so conditioned to see everything through the patriarchy we think that that’s the neutral position. We think that the neutral position is the male position and it is not. Motherhood is both as spectacularly beautiful as Bernini’s Virgin Mary, but it is also just abhorrent. It’s Paul McCarthy with Bernini. That’s motherhood. That’s what it is. It’s terrible and it’s amazing and the voice has not been there.”

THE DOCUMENTARY OPENS with a litany of profound and concerning insights:

“I think what’s interesting about artists who either make work about motherhood or incorporate aspects of being a mom into their work… I wonder if there’s a hesitancy to explore that fully, publicly. There’s this fear that it won’t be looked at beyond the scope of motherhood, that it will only be read through that one lens and that there won’t be the possibility of opening up the conversation,” said Naima Keith, deputy director and chief curator at the California African American Museum (CAAM).

“I have numerous friends in the art world who have horror stories about what happened when they became parents, that their exhibitions were postponed or canceled. Gallerists had invested in an artist they became afraid that once they became a parent that that artist’s work would change. There are many problems with that. I think the biggest problem for me is the assumption that that change would be a negative one,” said Micol Hebron, a video and performance artist, gallerist, and professor at Chapman University.

“The topic of motherhood does not make it into serious art journalism. It doesn’t make it into serious art criticism or art history. It doesn’t make it into the art history textbooks,” said journalist Jori Finkel, who co-produced the film. “…I think it’s really brave when artists put motherhood directly in their work and I think we’ve seen a lot of that in Los Angeles.”

Campbell’s practice is a prime example. Her work is autobiographical, so it is natural, she said, that motherhood shows up in her paintings. Shortly after she had her second child she made a suite of paintings depicting mothers and someone from the East Coast came to her studio to look at the series. She was taken aback by their reaction to the paintings. “They were horrified,” said Campbell. “They could not relate. They didn’t understand it. They thought the paintings were gross. It was the strangest experience.”

THE EXPERIENCES OF AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMEN, including Hinkle, Chung, and Keith, thread throughout “Artist and Mother.” References are also made to the empowering images of motherhood found in the work of Renee Cox, Senga Nengudi, and Betye Saar, whose daughter, artist Alison Saar, makes a cameo in the film.

Last year, Hinkle presented a new body of work at CAAM about a painful and ignored subject: missing black women. Her interdisciplinary practice spans painting, drawing, performance, writing and intense research. She earned her MFA from the California Institute of the Arts in May 2012 and found out she was pregnant that August. She has been a mother essentially for the entirety of her professional career.

She said her work is about “how the black female body navigates through geography and the perceptions that are placed onto the body with and without your control. And it’s about the residue of history. It has a lot do with power, negotiations of power. How does one place a history and identity onto you without your permission? How do you redefine that? How do you remix it? How do you challenge it? How do you lean into it? How do you roll with it?”

Hinkle added: “A lot of my work is very emotive and expressive. A lot of it has to do with intuition too. What are the things we know without knowing? she said. “A lot of these concepts and ideas started when I was pregnant with my son. …At the very launch of my career all of these works and emotions were coming through this very female experience.”

IS MOTHERHOOD THE LAST TABOO in contemporary art? Finkel contends it may be. “Sex is not off limits. Politics is not off limits. Sometimes it seems there’s nothing off limits to contemporary art except maybe motherhood,” she said. “There has not been a show about motherhood in contemporary art in Los Angeles at any of the major museums. there hasn’t been one at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. There hasn’t been one at the Tate. It’s really ironic that so few people have explored this theme of motherhood in art when you look at the history of art.”

Helen Molesworth, the former chief curator at MOCA Los Angeles, provided context throughout “Artist and Mother.” She noted compelling contemporary representations of motherhood in the work of Cox, Betye Saar, Alice Neel, and Catherine Opie, and weighed in on the risks and rewards of artists claiming their motherhood.

“In Western civilization we have this idea about an artist. It’s about a 600-year-old idea. This person is almost always considered a white man and he is a genius. He will do anything for his art. A mother on the other hand also gives up everything, but she does so in the guise of selflessness. The child is supposed to be the center of her universe. When you put these two terms together, mother and artist, then you’ve got a problem because you can’t give up everything for two different things,” Molesworth said.

She later added: “The question for me then becomes what does motherhood do to change the idea we have of what an artist is? What does being an artist do to change the idea of what a mother is?”

Hinkle may have figured out that balance, the reflexive nature of the two roles. Speaking about her son, she said: “Johari has this really intense energy in which he is self possessed. The things that are challenging about him are the things that I love about him, that I would never ever try to take away. And for me, he gives me conviction to say what I need. To go for it. To take up space. Everyday is an instant inspiration, just waking up to him.”

Artists are not alone when it comes to having reservations about how motherhood may change how they are viewed in the art world. Curators, such Keith, a mother of two, have similar concerns.

“When I found out my husband and I were having our girl, two years ago, I was nervous about sharing that information widely. …Outside of artists who were moms, [I] didn’t know any curators that were moms. And I was so worried that opportunities for travel or advancement or different job considerations would be taken away from me,” said Keith, who was seven months pregnant when she participated in the documentary.

“I appreciate the fact that the conversation has widened and that women feel empowered to make art work that I think really allows not just moms, but also women and hopefully men, as well, to see motherhood as this complex journey.” CT

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