Photography is in a family way again. Recent gallery shows include Gail Albert Halaban’s pseudo-photojournalistic stagings of alienated, über-chic moms at Robert Mann and Tierney Gearon’s bowel-churning portraits of her schizophrenic mother, at Yossi Milo. Justine Kurland recently traveled cross-country in a van with her infant son, photographing other mothers and their children, naked amid seemingly virginal landscapes; the pictures go on view at Mitchell-Innes & Nash this week. And the money shot in Global Feminisms, the hotly anticipated survey opening at the Brooklyn Museum next month, promises to be an up-to-date Madonna—Catherine Opie’s
Self Portrait/Nursing (2004). It shows the hefty, tattooed photographer (faintly scarred with the word “pervert” carved in cursive script across her chest) cradling a blond baby boy who feeds at her breast, each gazing upon the other with rapt attention.
Opie’s startling and magisterial ode to lactation is also on view in Family Pictures, the Guggenheim’s current show of photographs and videos by 16 artists, most of them women. Drawn from the museum’s permanent collection, it feels at times like an assembly of “greatest hits” from the gender-bending ’90s. But it also raises the question of whether, over the past decades, artists’ perceptions of family and childhood have undergone a radical shift.
The Guggenheim came remarkably late to photography; the occasion was a major donation, in 1993, by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Mapplethorpe’s pictures of children, some of the earliest works on view here, appear at once casual and disturbing: Three-year-old Rosie (1976), for example, seated on an ornate stone garden bench, reveals her genitalia with the disarming candor of an idiot.
There’s a world of difference between his somewhat alarming putti and Sally Mann’s radiant, lyrical portraits of her children, cavorting naked in an eternal, pastoral summer time. Suffused with maternal tenderness, they also hint at the cannibalistic impulses of both mother and child. Jessie Bites (1985) shows Mann’s three-year-old daughter, her naked body smeared with what looks like war paint, holding what we assume to be her mother’s arm on which the child’s tooth marks are visible. The menace of an all-consuming love also informs Patty Chang’s two-screen video installation showing the artist and her parents eating an onion together, passing it between their mouths in reverse motion. What looks initially like a passionate kiss between parent and child turns out to be the shared consumption of a bitter fruit, an image neatly encapsulating the painful contradictions of the filial bond.
How difficult it is to see parents or children with anything like objective vision. Photographer Loretta Lux’s child models have the look of exquisite, isolated space aliens. Janine Antoni’s photographic triptych of her parents, made-up and cross-dressed to resemble each other, throws off all of our perceptions; her “Dad-as-Mom” appears more maternal than Mom herself, and vice versa.
Fathers, in fact, are in short supply here; one notable exception is Thomas Struth’s fascinating and solemn large-scale portrait, The Richter Family 1, Cologne (2002), in which the painter Gerhard Richter appears at home with his wife and their young children—their body language neatly divided by gender and hinting at psychological conflicts, with Richter’s painted memento mori hanging behind them.
Do we ever outgrow our childhoods? Not, apparently, Gillian Wearing, whose Self Portrait at Three Years Old (2004) shows the artist wearing a cherubic silicone mask, through which her weary, adult eyes peer with uncanny sadness. And not according to Tracey Moffat, whose bitterly deadpan series, Scarred for Life (1994), depicts traumatic moments from white and Aboriginal childhoods in her native Australia.
And can we ever still our parents’ voices? The French writer Michel de Montaigne, in his essay “On Custom,” describes a tribe of “Indians” who were in the habit of “eating the dead bodies of their fathers . . . believing they could not give them a better, nor more noble sepulchre, than to bury them in their own bodies.” Burying them in art is perhaps the next best thing.
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