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 Frances Goodman, Asya Reznikov, and Beth Moysés, 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. Frances Goodman’s textile and sound installation, The Dream, is comprised of satin, silk, and organza wedding dresses flowing from the ceiling to the floor in waves of pinks and whites. Goodman interviewed dozens of women ages 20 to 60 and integrated their candid emotions of hope, envy, angst, uncertainty, and desire about the tradition of marriage, into the work as both hand-embroidered words on the dresses and as sound excerpts from the interviews she recorded. Reznikov’s Packing: Brideenacts 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 Dreamscreates 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.
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 Writingemerge 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 youthful Tree Dwellersmay be engaged in temporary play or permanent encampment; while Ash Wednesdaydepicts 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.
Laurie Lipton, Chris Roberts-Antieau, and Stacey Steers reveal the potential trauma and horror of childhood cast through the lens of a childhood toy: the dollhouse. Roberts-Antieau’s Murder Houserecreates the horror of the 1959 Clutter family murders, made famous by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, while Lipton plumbs the depths of her psyche in visions of domestic terror. Here, the everyday rituals of mealtime, playtime, and bedtime are haunted by shadowy, menacing figures, spider webs, skulls, liquid and dread oozing through floorboards. Steers combines video projections within her constructed dwelling to create uncanny scenes and visions of monsters and killers running innocent people from their homes.
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 her jacket lapel suggests a military uniform, alluding to abuse and suffering. Gehard Demetz’s bronze and wooden sculptures of a child soldier and placid doll-like girl are fixed in place by symbols of industry and religious worship—a gas can and a crucifix—unconsenting conscripts into adulthood. Demetz’s life-size sculpture—Keep My Old Dreams—depicts a frowning child, standing in a protective stance; he holds a baseball bat in one hand and a hairbrush out in front of him in the other, as if warding off danger. 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.” For Sofie Muller’s Clarysse, the battlefield 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 with gradually change as a result of impacts over time; students are literally and figuratively shaped by the state sponsored education they receive. 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.
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 pietàworks 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. David Magnusson’s portraits of fathers and daughters—participants in Purity Balls in Colorado, Arizona and Louisiana—challenge viewers to review their personal principles and judgements andinvestigate how surrounding culture influences values. During a Purity Ball, young girls promise to “live pure lives before God” and to remain virgins until marriage. In return, their fathers sign a commitment promising to protect their daughters’ chastity.
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 Auntevoke 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.
Works by Christa Parravani, leonardogillesfleur, and Lucy Sparrow are representations of daily domesticity—the rituals of habit and intimacy—that reveal a persistent conflict between self and social norms. 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’ Hersis 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.
Indeed, all intimate relationships are subject to change from internal and exterior forces. In her Farmer’s Daughter Cycle, Lauren Argo performs a dreamlike homage to the complex life cycle of her family’s small tobacco farm. For generations, her elders’ dependence on the land formed traditions and responsibilities that engendered both masculine and feminine roles for each family member. As she enacts the shifting identities of a tobacco worker, daughter, and sister, Argo performs a process of self-inquiry at work in many lifelong laborers as the source of their livelihood and heritage runs dry. Legacy also informs Chris Radtke’s Progeny (2) pink, a nylon mesh sculpture that is both a representational and abstract portrait of her granddaughter, scaled to the child’s four-year old body. The diaphanous material evokes sacramental garments (a veil, a shroud), while the geometry of the form invokes an art-historical reference to Minimalism. Created in Radtke’s studio, Progeny (2) pink is the off-spring of both self and art, body and mind, a dual portrait of artist and subject.
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. Carrie Mae 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. 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.”
Daily rituals and communal rites continue to shape identity and define the politics of family and society; 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