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Alienation, exhaustion, and unspoken expectations are familiar feelings among artists. But that doesn’t mean that an audience shows up when an artist harnesses these emotions as a mother. Artist Kaitlyn Tucek’s new exhibition Its All Coming Apart, at ATC | DEN gallery in Denver, Colorado, is the creative result of caring for her sick child. Her work reveals her shifting concept of motherhood, and the failures of critics and galleries to keep up.
In “We Are Not Here To Do What Has Already Been Done,” (2017) Tucek draws in an effort to comprehend the failures within her child’s body. The series comprises 27 drawings of a heart from oscillating perspectives, as if the artist is searching for a solution. Her second child, Rowan, was born with Congenital Heart Disease, meaning her heart had multiple holes (ventricular septal defects); the routes that carry blood from the heart to the lungs are more like cul-de-sac’s than freeways (pulmonary atresia). Before she was two, Rowan underwent four open heart surgeries and many hospital stays. Tucek obsessively re-draws a single subject with lines that are heavy and blunt, as if she’s cutting into a woodblock. Threads of fuchsia emerge from the organs and spill into stagnant puddles on the floor. The isolation of the form echoes Tucek’s own isolation, in the home or the hospital, confessing “all you hear is beeping.”
A thread of hot pink connects the drawing series with another piece, “If All The World Was Paper” (2017). Paperwork cascades from the sculpture’s crown and pools at its base. Mechanical breast milk pumps awkwardly babysit the diagrams, bills, and to-do lists. It is Tucek’s heavy-handed reflection on her child’s inability to breastfeed. The accumulation of milk is a marker of lost days.
As both a parent and an analytical observer, Tucek echoes aspects of artist Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (1973-1979). The concept of a relationship takes shape as the artworks alternate between emotion and intellect. In Post-Partum Document, we see the output of a child through clothing, excrement and writing, but in Tucek’s work, we don’t see the child — only the mother’s input. It’s All Coming Apart is an internal conversation: Tucek’s relationship with herself, exploring a motherhood as a narrative that is not linear, chronological, or traditional.
“And They Put Her Back Together Again” (2017) shows an abstracted “C” shape sprayed with hot pink and muddy blues. The organic concave form repeats across several paintings, but has enough definition in “I’m Drowning, My Dear, In Seas of Fire” (2018) to reveal it as a woman collapsing in on herself, head buried in her arms and doubled over at the waist. It recalls the painting “Femme Maison” (1946-47), by Louise Bourgeois, in which a woman carries a house on her shoulders.
In a conversation at the gallery, Tucek confessed a concern that critics weren’t discussing her work due to her artistic perspective as mother. This may seem a strange observation, since artists like Bourgeois and Kelly — not to mention Sally Mann, Elizabeth Murray, and Lisa Sigal — have put to rest the traditionalist’s trap of mother as singular nurturer. In 1964, a critic in Arts Magazine argued that Bourgeois’ work appeared as though “the sculptor hadn’t felt like working.” But recently, Tucek heard a critic dismiss another female artist’s exhibition, on the grounds that “she’s a mom.”
Before Rowan was born, Tucek met with an art dealer, and near the end of their conversation she disclosed her pregnancy. Tucek recalled that the dealer pushed back from his desk, reclined in his chair, and told the artist that she would be so busy “with that,” it wouldn’t be productive enough to continue the relationship.
Galleries, she added, have responded similarly — often with some variation of, “We don’t really have a place for this kind of thing, but good luck and I hope your daughter feels better,” she told me. Tucek is not alone. The silence seems deafening when searching archives for exhibition reviews of female artists who make parenting a part of their identity. (Most critics don’t go as far as Ken Johnson, who, in a bizarre and disrespectful jab, called the work of Michelle Grabner “a satire of the artist as a comfortably middle-class tenured professor and soccer mom.” If publications are a barometer for success, then prominent female artists may seem like middle-aged savants, arriving at museum shows out of thin air. “By rejecting and condemning parenthood, artists themselves helped institutionalize the self-centered, hermetic behavior that is frequently construed as a sign of genius,” Sharon Butler argues in her essay Neo-Maternalism: Contemporary Artists’ Approach to Motherhood.
Anyone who says that artists who are mothers can’t contribute to the visual arts is not only wrong, but also ignorant. If the Madonna sits in the center of the Western history of painting, why can’t her intimate relationship with her child be expanded? Why can’t women explore new themes, and experiment in new spaces, just like male artists — whose identities rarely come from their status as parents? The hypocrisy that the art world, occupying a proud outsider position in society, would demand conformity from one of its own, seems a desperately arrogant kind of misogyny. It is one more way that female voices are silenced.
Katilyn Tucek: It’s All Coming Apart continues at ATC | DEN, (Denver, CO) until March 31, 2018.