Rituals—religious and cultural, institutional and domestic—provide the thematic infrastructure for OFF-SPRING: New Generations. These sculptures, paintings, photographs, and videos employ iconographic imagery to explore the development of both personal and group identity, childhood, family, history, and gender politics. At the wedding altar, in the family home, or in the classroom, within the fantasy of childhood play or the familiarity of grown-up habit, these new, old narratives generate a spectrum of meditations on the contemporary construction of self and society.
The history and symbolism of marital rituals are both exposed and transformed in works by Asya Reznikov, Beth Moysés, and Rachel Lee Hovnanian, addressing a broad range of issues within the metaphoric constraints of tradition. These works reference what brides have worn and carried to and from the altar, in search of a blessing, a partner, a new self or different life. Reznikov’s Packing: Bride enacts the nostalgia and anticipation of displacement. Illuminating the mental and emotional state of transition experienced by immigrants and travelers, Reznikov fills a suitcase with objects and images that constitute bridal “necessities”—items that may fulfill the bride’s desire for material and psychological preparedness as she embarks on a new life in an unfamiliar world. The brides featured in Beth Moysés’s still and moving images are embarking on a transformative journey both physical and emotional. Reconstructing Dreams creates a new ritual: female survivors of domestic abuse walk together through the streets of Montevideo, Uruguay, to the central public square, where they sit and embroider the patterns of the lines in their hands on their gloves, discarding their past and wedding themselves to new lives. Rachel Lee Hovnanian’s Dinner for Two presents another menace to intimate relationships: technology. Represented as screens, a bride and groom celebrate their union, sharing a network connection but not conversation; they gaze outward to their electronic devices and not toward each other, failing to notice a mouse slowing consuming their wedding cake, and potentially, their love.
Both Lalla Essaydi and Angela Ellsworth explore the conventions and aesthetics of the faith-based traditions in which they were raised—Islam and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known as Mormonism. The women invoked in Angela Ellsworth’s sculpture, Eliza and Emily, are bound to each other: the pin-sharp straps of these 19th-century-style bonnets, fashioned from thousands of pearl corsage pins, are continuous, holding them forever in place, opposing and supporting one another. A descendant of Mormon prophet Lorenzo Snow, Ellsworth examines women in the context of fundamentalist Mormonism, and the ritual, symbolism, and constraint inherent in trappings such as Seer Bonnets. Cloistered and covered head to toe with lines of henna script, the women featured in Lalla Essaydi’s Les Femmes du Maroc: Harem Women Writing emerge from the artist’s Moroccan girlhood. “I needed to return to the culture of my childhood if I wanted to understand my unfolding relation to the ‘converging territories’ of my present life,” says the artist, who now lives in the U.S. The texts, which are primarily autobiographical and written in the Islamic script that was forbidden for her female relatives to use, “is the story of my quest to find my own voice,” while revealing and affirming other lives and stories unheard.
The weight of the future and the past encumbers much of the variously angelic, endangered, and enigmatic figures featured in OFF-SPRING. Imaginary play is rendered as both enchanting and uncanny in photographs by Adriana Duque, Loretta Lux, Vee Speers, Laetitia Soulier, Anthony Goicolea, and others. Duque and Lux transform their young subjects to create painterly portraits that reference art history, alluding to Rembrandt, Velázquez, Piero della Francesca, and others, while the make-up and costumes worn by models in Speers’s works belie more than the joy of dress-up, their faces and poses introducing the presence of the uncanny. Both Goicolea and Soulier reimagine childhood traditions that allow for explorations of identity that transcend the constraints of ritual and role-play. Soulier describes the characters in her Matryoshka series as stand-ins for characters in a dark fairytale and playful children. These environments, says Soulier, are “their toy, their home, their childhood, their adulthood, the space between their past and their future.” Soulier’s visions of girlhood suggest that consciousness and identity are always in flux. Similarly, the rites and trials of adolescence animate Anthony Goicolea’s boy-world, in which mysteriously uniformed, hooded, and masked young males participate in group-rituals that range from fairytale-like to uncanny. The raucous food fight depicted in Feastlings may be a scene of lighthearted play or anarchy; while Ash Wednesday depicts one boy tied to a branch and transported through the forest by his clones, toward an unknown rite of penance, of sacrifice, or merely play.
Children are often saddled with the sadness and sins of cultural, social, and familial history. Gottfried Helnwein’s haunting portrait of a doe-eyed child is half in shadow, one side of the face possibly bruised; the design on the jacket lapel suggests a military uniform, alluding to abuse and suffering. Demetz’s sculpture—Dirt on My Shoulders—depicts a young boy and girl facing each other; their minds and hearts are veiled in white. The artist notes that these children “transmit the awareness of becoming adults and thus losing, as Rudolf Steiner says, their ability to be able to ‘hear’ their unconscious. They live with the burden of guilt transmitted from generation to generation, which does not belong to them.” Titled after Jay-Z’s 2003 song “Dirt Off Your Shoulders,” Demetz acknowledges that all youth must labor to cleanse themselves of familial and societal trauma, patterns, and expectations.
For Sofie Muller’s Clarysse, the subject is the schoolroom, where seated for eternity at her wooden desk, she is rendered headless. Some external tragedy or interior conflict—the boredom, the shame, the struggle to succeed and conform that may attend those years in school—has erased her visage, her mind, leaving only an oval shadow burned into the desktop. Li Hongbo’s hand-carved effigy of a child is sculpted from used Chinese primary school textbooks. The artist notes that textbooks are standardized by the government and become tools for repression, historical distortion, and conveying the will of political power. The title, Absorption No. 5, references the Chinese idiom ‘absorbing and transforming’ which posits that the individual will gradually change as a result of impacts over time; students are literally and figuratively shaped by the state-sponsored education they receive. Anwulika Anigbo’s We be Reading Marx, captures her son’s at-home schooling when classrooms were shut down due to COVID-19. Bathed in light and engrossed in reading, this tender, poignant image of a familiar, everyday activity subverts media-generated portrayals of young Black males.
The plaster covered, child-sized dresses in Chiharu Shiota’s State of Being (Dress), float as if the young bodies that once wore them were still present. Suspended within a mass of white threads, the sculpture alludes to personal and collective memories of childhood, anxiety, dreams, oblivion, and death. The haunting traces of anonymous childhoods pay homage to the untold stories of those who might have worn these clothes in life or in death: in Shiota’s country of Japan, white is the color of mourning. White vintage christening gowns are imprinted with photographs of young girls in Delita Martin’s series, Keepsakes, though the fabric has yellowed with the passage of time, which the artist explains, also suggests a challenge to the notion of purity being conferred by religious ritual. Like Shiota’s work, Keepsakes “look beyond the surface of objects at the memories they hold.” Martin says that “Their purpose is to preserve the childhood of young Black girls and act as mementos of innocence.” In this way, Keepsakes is a direct act against ‘adultification,’ a perspective where adults view Black girls as less than innocent and more adult-like, ripping away their innocence, and replacing it with labels such as ‘disruptive,’ ‘loud’, or ‘manipulative’.”
Artists today appropriate such ritual mise-en-scène to honor, expose, subvert, or affirm theological belief. For her Pietà, Sam Taylor-Johnson cast herself as the grieving Madonna, and the actor Robert Downey Jr. as the dead Christ. While the poses mimic pietà works by Renaissance masters Michelangelo and Bernini, Taylor-Johnson draws attention not to the sitters’ assigned roles, but to the artifice on display, and to their identities, their celebrity—captured and enhanced by camera-wielding media. Cobi Moules’s Untitled (Coast of Maine) draws parallels between the Christian culture he was raised in and the Hudson River School painters’ interest in portraying the glory of God through representations of the landscape. As a queer and transgender person, Moules uses these images of himself within the landscape to renegotiate his relationship with his upbringing, explaining; “I utilize traditional representation as a way of seeking inclusion, creating a space for personal significance and queer presence…It is a community of me engaging in different activities: playing, exploring my selves, exploring nature and becoming part of it.”
The domestic ritual of the family portrait is repurposed in the work of Julie Nord, Deana Lawson, Hans Op de Beeck, and Robert Pettena; its conventional documentarian function transformed into illustrations of fantasy, memory, and newly emerging family structures. The pale, wide-eyed faces in Nord’s pen and watercolor portraits might belong in a late 19th-century parlor, but for the color literally dripping from their features. The Niece, Unknown Relative (Wilbur), and A Distant Aunt evoke Victorian imagery, the world of Charles Adams, the brothers Grimm, and more: theirs is an eerie family tableau of typologies, not individuals. Robert Pettena and Hans Op de Beeck’s videos invite the viewer to a ritual repast—an outdoor banquet and a series of ceremonial meals—in which the expected conventions of behavior and time are subverted, separating a known ritual from recognizable reality. Both humor and pathos are present in these vivid tableaux of contemporary cultural and social practices, imbuing the everyday with the import of history, of myth. Deana Lawson’s photographic practice stems from her interest in capturing the “realness” of a family snapshot by exploring themes of intimacy, selfhood, and familial identity through representations of the body. Photographing her subjects in their homes and communities gives viewers visual cues and information about the individuals in the photographs, presenting social intimacies that defy stereotypes. Lawson has described her work as “a mirror of everyday life, but also a projection of what I want to happen. It’s about setting a different standard of values and saying that everyday Black lives, everyday experiences, are beautiful, and powerful, and intelligent.”
Works by Nina Rodin, Christa Parravani, leonardogillesfleur, and Lucy Sparrow are representations of daily domesticity—the rituals of habit and intimacy. Rodin’s series, The Clothes Project, combines 11,985 photos of Rodin taken during the course of a calendar year, each time she changed an article of clothing or accessory. These serial self-portraits animate the mundane, repetitive ritual of clothing oneself while addressing the myriad of small decisions that contribute to individuality and consumerism. Staged in rural, often bleak settings, Parravani’s imagery narrates her life—a life she shared intimately with her twin sister. Parravani’s photographs of herself and her twin, and of a bride and groom, illustrate the complex synchronicity of the ties that bind: we seek to be together but alone, alike but unique. The longing to be both intimate and independent is also enacted by the couple riding nowhere on leonardogillesfleur’s Irreconcilable Differences, demonstrating how we long for change and consistency at once, and how individual drives may conflict with the structural norms of a sanctioned union. Sparrow’s His n’ Hers is a bathroom cabinet filled with hand-stitched, felt replicas of everyday personal hygiene products separated into gendered representations of a couple. The division highlights the unique needs and desires of men and women while critiquing a consumer culture that categorizes people based upon biology.
Reimagining history and myth creates opportunities for identity to transcend the constraints of ritual and role-play, especially within the crucible of childhood wherein the self is first formed. The force and foundation of motherhood connects many works in OFF-SPRING, like Filippa Barkman’s drawing of an intimate embrace, aptly titled Twine I, captures a mother and children woven together by their bodies and bond. Carrie Mae Weems’s Kitchen Table series presents domestic drama as the central stage for re-envisioning gender and family roles, with the artist cast in the center, empowered to embody, represent, and speak for a breadth of humanity: “I use myself simply as a vehicle for approaching the question of power. It is never about me; it’s always about something larger,” says the artist. “I use my own constructed image as a vehicle for questioning ideas about the role of tradition, the nature of family, monogamy, polygamy, relationships between men and women, between women and children, and between women and other women—underscoring the critical problem and the possible resolves.” Weems adopts and updates classical Greek mythology in May Flowers, a trio of beribboned African American girls, framed in tondo, Renaissance-style as three contemporary graces. The central figure’s gaze is direct and frontal: their roles—as muses and more—are neither imposed nor fixed, but self-asserted, reframing, reclaiming the stage of art history.
A trio of muses also animates Ragnar Kjartansson’s immersive video installation, Song. Performed by the artist’s flaxen-haired nieces over the course of six hours, “The weight of the world is love,” is the featured lyric, both metaphoric and melancholy, extrapolated from Kjartansson’s memory of an Allen Ginsberg poem, which they sing and strum, as daylight gives way to dusk, in real time. Filmed in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art, the neo-classical setting framing the scene contextualizes Kjartansson’s contemporary reverie with the ancient Greek vision of beauty as symmetry and synchronicity, in which beauty is truth and truth, beauty. And yet, by ritualizing everyday activities—singing, reading, sleeping—within the museum, Kjartansson’s vision also challenges the authority of the institution and its canonical collection to determine what and who is beautiful or true, and highlights the value of everyday experiences. Works by Kelly Kristin Jones and by Kelli Connell and Natalie Krick also pose challenges to traditions and power. Kelly Kristin Jones’s A view from home repurposes neo-classical urns, collected from the homes of suburban white women, into exaggerated Grecian columns; these forms recall familiar architectural features used in structures that represent and exert power, from government buildings to museums. Connell and Krick’s photo installation, The Shout and the Echo from their collaborative series, o_Man!, recontextualizes Edward Steichen’s renowned 1955 exhibition, The Family of Man, which included 503 photographs narrating the human experience from a distinctly patriarchal perspective, and which traveled to thirty-seven countries on six continents until 1994. By removing and reordering the images with text from The Family of Man’s original catalogue, Connell and Krick offer a reconsideration of which stories are told within museum spaces, by whom, and for whom. Kjartansson, Jones, and Connell and Krick all reveal and subvert established rituals of design and aesthetics to raise questions about representation, inclusion, and value. In OFF-SPRING, transformations of iconic imagery from spheres both sacred and profane generate a new power, the power of potential and change.
– Alice Gray Stites, Chief Curator, Museum Director