Visitors to the 2008 SECA Art Award exhibition will remember The Magic Window, a suite of drawings and video from 2007 in which Desiree Holman invokes the enticing numbness of sitcom family fantasies from her 1980s childhood. In her latest body of work, on view at Silverman Gallery in San Francisco through May 30, she digs deeper into the complexities of familial psychology, tackling the thorny territory of motherhood. Holman’s practice originates in sculpture, with costumes and props that actors then bring to life in her psychedelic video epics. Her interest is in the mediation of deeply personal ideas, such as the relationship between parent and child, through the lens of popular American culture. The genesis of this project, which she titled Reborn, was Holman’s discovery of a movement among middle-aged American housewives to create lifelike baby dolls, complete with breathing mechanisms and individually-rooted eyelashes.
Holman spent more than two years researching the Reborning movement. She learned that many Reborners have already had grown children, and that many of them are devoutly religious. She found that they take their hobby very seriously, and that they have developed a strong online presence despite representing a demographic that has been slow to embrace the Internet. The process of Reborning is laborious, involving specialized tools and paints, and tremendous technical skill. Holman ultimately produced eight dolls as the starting point for this body of work.
The mothers in Reborn are all young, beautiful and voluptuous. They are drawn lovingly with colored pencil, in fine detail. Their babies appear serene, but slightly odd – stiff and unresponsive. They are offered the breast but do not drink. One baby has two heads. The mothers also look dull, milk trickling from the corners of their mouths. They have already given everything they have to the tiny parasites.
Holman’s process in this work involves a progression from sculpture to photography to drawing and finally to video. In Silverman’s back room, women rock their babies to throbbing rock music. They dance suggestively from behind veils. The music and the dance poses evoke MTV, but unlike the women in pop videos, these ladies are invested with an unruly fecundity. They gyrate in pink panties, suggesting endless reproduction, seduction and sacrifice.
Later in the video, women spin in a field, laden with crude slings. On one side balances a baby, on the other a stack of books. The ever-present subtext of Reborn is the impossibility of satisfying the competing urges of career and motherhood, a dilemma which the artist understands well. On the heels of a major recognition by SECA, Holman is seeing her career catch fire after years of patient hard work. At the same time, she is at an age and stage of life when motherhood is an ever-present spectre. Holman’s models – artists themselves, connected by a close Bay Area network – are poised at a similar crossroads. How to balance two all-consuming pursuits, and still remain a whole person?
With Reborn, Desiree Holman presents a dystopic fantasia of the mother-child dynamic that underscores the real challenges faced by ambitious and family-oriented women. Expected to suppress one or another side of their natures, her women are fit to burst. This is work that delivers a feminist message with a light yet precise touch.