Desiree Holman’s Alien Resurrection
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.
New motherhood can feel like that sometimes! The flow of spit-up milk is never-ending. I would wager that many of the new mothers in my age group could relate to those images, and I hope they would not feel that their choices were under attack from the work. Then again, any informed reading of the work is valid, that’s part of what makes contemporary art interesting.
I picked the more posed drawings because the horror-show is represented in the video, whereas the more serene imagery is less apparent there. Didn’t mean to leave them out! Hope others will check it out and draw their own conclusions.
This does clarify, thanks.
About inner turmoil, though, I dunno. The pictures above look posed and affectless to me, faces straight out of the Style section. Though, I seem to recall from the show a drooling horror-show or three (“all young, beautiful and voluptuous,” you say above – !!!), that haven’t made it into your illustrations: http://www.silverman-gallery.com/exhibition/workview/1676/9981 or http://www.silverman-gallery.com/exhibition/workview/1676/9982. They don’t look conflicted, they look like they’re about to start levitating and vomiting green bile.
I don’t see her stance as anti-natal. Anti-cult of motherhood, certainly, and you are correct that she’s commenting on the media frenzy surrounding celebrity fertility. Perhaps because I’ve talked to her about her intentions, I read the work as conflicted with respect to parenting but quite firm in its position vis-a-vis commodification of fertility and stereotyping of motherhood. The pressure that these images put on parents and prospective parents alike is reflected in Holman’s treatment of her models. They cradle and try to nurse their doll-babies but the intensity of their inner turmoil is overwhelming.
The overt developmental study that’s central to Post-Partum Document is not replicated in Holman’s work. However her whole body of work does stem from an ongoing research interest in human development, which she’s covered in earlier works such as her 2002 project Art as Therapy.
I think you’d need to explain why an anti-natal position – which is not confined, in the exhibition, to Holman’s own body or choices but assigned to her pan-racial models – is feminist, to make your adjective stick. Of course I think it’s possible to make such a connection – see The Dialectic of Sex, for starters – but it hasn’t yet happened here.
I can’t square the “aggressive posture” (I agree with this) with “ambivalence about either option.” Whatever they are, they’re not ambivalent. I also can’t buy the comparison to Post-Partum Document. PPD is a seven-year investigation and documentation of a child’s inauguration into language (and Kelly’s own ambivalent working-through of that documentation). Holman’s show looks like a pictorial response to the current bamboozlement about pregnancy and motherhood: Octomom, Bristol Palin etc.
The work’s feminist content comes from the aggressive posture, and the interplay of desire and repulsion surrounding the idea of family. In my view, feminism is essentially about choice. The option to raise a family, to choose the isolation and self-sacrifice of motherhood, is as much a feminist’s right as is a career. Holman’s ambivalence about either option seems to me a very contemporary approach to the question.
Speaking art historically, the work could be read as a Surrealist, prenatal counterpoint to Mary Kelly’s Post -Partum Document.
“This is work that delivers a feminist message with a light yet precise touch.” Can you say why you think so, exactly? As in, from which version of feminism such work delivers its messages? For it is not all that clear why grotesque pictures of motherhood would be particularly feminist – in fact one could just as easily imagine the opposite case being made.