Madeline Donahue, “Squash,” (2019), oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in. (all images courtesy the artist and Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, New York)

The tangle of pink limbs representing a mother and child in Madeline Donahue’s painting, “Squash” (2019) renders the figures almost indistinguishable. Their relationship’s extreme intimacy is palpable, and threatens to subsume each individual into one being. This small-scale, portrait-style work is part of the artist’s first solo exhibition, Attachments, currently on view at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects. It includes 15 paintings, six drawings, and three ceramic sculptures. While “Squash” and other works evoke the intimacy of caretaking, they also betray the absurdities involved in it. Using playfulness, vulnerability, and surreal pleasure, Donahue shows the double-crossed joys of motherhood, confronting the taboos associated with painting one’s life as a mother.

Madeline Donahue, “Zipline,” (2019), oil on canvas, 11 x 14 inches

In the paintings in the exhibition, Donahue uses a Prussian blue and rose color palette to depict a mother and child. The works’ close-up, cropped compositions bring an immediacy to the scenes and encourage the viewer to step closer. Donahue paints with wide, flat brushstrokes and minimal shading, articulating bodies in curving pools of color bounded by thick outlines. The paintings’ flatness and attention to line are echoed in the exhibition’s seven colored pencil drawings, which share the same motifs as the paintings and sculpture.

While Donahue draws inspiration from artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Alice Neel, and Marlene Dumas, who have all made work related to ideas of mothering, Donahue’s work should also be seen in the context of Madonna and child imagery — especially more true-to-life, playful depictions of the Christ child. Yet, Donahue did not see many of the daily realities of parenting reflected in art. The work in Attachments was borne out of Donahue’s decision to accept what these realities bring to bear on her studio practice, both the challenges and joys.  She works quickly from the experiences of everyday life, including her daughter’s desire to be around her at all times.

Madeline Donahue, “Belay,” (2019), oil on canvas, 14 x 11 inches

Donahue addresses this lack of boundaries with frank tenderness and humor, depicting scenes that are familiar, but not very publicly visible. “Squash,” “Pommel,” (2018) “Zipline” (2019), and “Belay” (2019) show the physicality of motherhood by drawing connections to sports (as indicated in some of the titles) including gymnastics and rock climbing, thus making unusual but appealing associations. In “Pommel,” a baby latches on to her mother’s body like a gymnast ready to fly. The tiny cherub in “Belay” seems ready to repel off her mother’s head, emphasizing the playful spirit and vulnerability of their relationship. Although not overt in these works but more obvious in Donahue’s work not on view, breastfeeding, and the child’s perception of her mother as a source of nourishment, also comes into this work. Like motherhood itself, breastfeeding carries with it cultural implications and stigmas, as well as pleasures and physical and emotional pains.

Madeline Donahue, “Pommel,” (2018), oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches

Present along with the works’ notion of affection is their sense of the strange. The two-figures-as-one in “Squash” suggests a reversion to the prepartum body, of two beings fused into one primordial creature. This repeated development is also evoked in “Cyclops,” (2019) which, in comparing a mother with a mythological one-eyed ogre, alludes to the idea of mother as monster. Yet the works in the exhibition do not indulge this archaic maternal model. Instead, Donahue parallels the child’s efforts to monopolize her mother’s body, time and space by using color, line, and shape. By juxtaposing a flattened and abstracted body with visceral feelings of immediacy and tenderness, she creates tensions between closeness and separation, familiarity and estrangement, and calm and chaos.

Madeline Donahue, “Cyclops,” (2019), prismacolor on paper, 12 x 9 inches

Accompanying the mother’s willful desire to forgo her individual needs while in the service of another is the mollifying effect of touch. This effect is so strong as to seemingly lessen the need for the other four senses. The majority of works on view contain an exaggerated, thickly outlined blue eye while also emphasizing the mother’s loss of physical faculties, especially of vision. This depiction of an eye resembles an “evil eye,” considered by various cultures to be a talisman that wards off evil spirits, and implies a symbolic vision, or a Surrealist “inner vision,” and a rejection of rational, visible reality. Indeed, many of these works espouse a wisdom rooted in touch, experience, and intimacy, challenging limitations on the depiction of the experience of motherhood and refusing to separate the absurdity of mothering from the joy.

Madeline Donahue: Attachments continues at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 6.

Irini Zervas is an art historian, curator, and copyeditor interested in photographic modernism, Surrealism, and gender. She has contributed to exhibitions at the Hunter College Art Galleries and the National...