Separated by Birth
By Stacy Davies
The concept of “separation anxiety” is most often applied to children and refers to the angst most of them feel when they begin to break from their primary caregiver—going to daycare, school, etc. It’s accepted as a normal psychological condition and a developmental stage that is common to all healthy offspring; it’s also a subject about which volumes of practical “how to deal with it” advice are offered. What is rarely discussed, however, is the separation anxiety felt by the primary caregiver, which in most cases is still the mother. The anguish that women experience as their child grows up and apart from them is often discounted, in fact, and brushed aside as something whimsical and sentimental: “empty nest syndrome,” for example. But the real-life, soul-wrenching conflict of knowing she must push her child away in order for it to survive versus the psychological and emotional turmoil that comes with each step away from the safety of her body is a powerful theme, and one that has recently found its way into contemporary art themes.
In curators Denise Johnson and Rebecca Trawick’s new exhibition, “Separation Anxiety,” the fears of the mother letting go are on hand in full display. In addition, her memories, desperate hoarding of mementos that freeze her child in time and the drive to balance a life in which two or more people must grow and change in completely opposite ways yet for the same purpose, haunt the adult whom we assume can handle it all.
In Haley Hasler’s oil, Lady Serving Dinner, we see an exquisite, Classically-rendered hybrid of the mother both real and imagined. Standing in a room wallpapered with chaotic green and fuchsia wallpaper of working peasants, the sateen dressed woman is surrounded by myriad plates of sumptuous food at her feet. She commands the room: one hand raises up a delectable dish ready for the masses, and wrung through the crux of her other arm, an infant placidly waits for the next shiny object. In the dark, muted dining room behind her, two teenagers sit mindlessly and a father sips a glass of wine, all of them waiting for the grand dame of domesticity to deliver. But make no mistake—this lady is no kin to those doormat mothers who shove their feelings into basements in order to keep up appearances. Instead of hiding behind fake smiles and plastic laughter, she reveals her stoic, unpainted face, a courageous participant in her own servitude who has no intention of being defined by it.
Focusing on the desperation of not letting go, Monica Bock adds organic potency to childhood keepsakes in her Postpartum Miniature, a small gold-plated cameo embedded with a vibrantly colored piece of her placenta. This is the literal, physical proof of the connection between mother and child and yet this gritty “evidence” is usually considered unsightly by non-mothers, and certainly not something to be prized. It’s a raw, brilliant concept, highlighting the stigma of afterbirth—and why such a stigma exists is what Bock wants us to ponder.
Moving into nonorganic body mementos, Bock’s series of porcelain-cast, gold and silver molds of teeth, Cheek by Jowl, present the entire mouth of the child (not just a single lost tooth) as a token of remembrance and certainly makes those kitschy and extravagant bronzed baby booties actually seem sensible. Kate Kretz is also keen on collectables, and in her Your Fragility…, she has embroidered her daughter’s frilly blouse with the words “Your fragility in this sharp world is paralyzing” using the hair she lost while the girl was in utero. Immensely powerful, this statement of love and fear is also a connection of body parts and seems to temporarily re-cement the bond between mother and child—until the child outgrows the shirt.
The physical development of our chicks is also touched upon, and Rebecca Edwards’ Quit It, an installation in which a host of headless muslin and wood tykes scramble over one another to reach the top of a towering high chair to grapple for attention and creamed carrots presents a sobering “survival of the fittest” view. The same can be said for Claudia Alvarez’s On the Playground, where life-size, ceramic child-monsters engaged in a bullying brigade—one in which the girl is actually kicking the wind out of the boy to the great fanfare of her peers. Continuing her theme of toddler brutality, Alvarez’s fantastic series of watercolors present our mini-mes and their disturbing choices: a young girl totes a sawed-off shotgun, a boy holds a water pistol to the temple of a smaller child, two brothers sport terrorist ski masks and fatigues, and an angelic little girl boldly puffs on a cigarette—all reminders that children are sponges and mimics, and most of all, they are mirrors.
“Separation Anxiety” at the Wignall Museum of Contemporary Art, Chaffey College, 5885 Haven Ave. Rancho Cucamonga, (909) 652-6492; www.chaffey.edu/wignall. Open Mon-Thurs, 10AM-4PM; Sat, noon-4PM. Thru Nov. 13. Free.