Art review: ‘Breaking in Two,’ visions of motherhood at Arena 1

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Why is it that the opening chapter of life has never received as much attention in art as the concluding pages? Why are elegy and memorial such established art forms (not just in visual art but in music, poetry) yet no equivalent form addresses birth, much less the ongoing process of raising children?

These aren’t trick questions, nor even difficult ones to answer, given the female-centric nature of these underrecognized subjects. Sexism reigned just as oppressively in the realms of art (creation, distribution and scholarship) as it had in the culture at large until the feminist surge a scant half-century ago helped redefine legitimate aesthetic territory. Now, women artists enjoy at least nominal equality with their male counterparts, though issues of the maternal, if no longer taboo in art, remain largely on the periphery.


“Breaking in Two: Provocative Visions of Motherhood,” at Arena 1, puts those themes front and center. Organized by artist Bruria Finkel, and graced with the Pacific Standard Time imprimatur, the show features work from the 1960s to the present by some 40 Southern California artists (including a few collectives), among them Eleanor Antin, Kim Abeles, Alison, Lezley and Betye Saar, Jo Ann Callis, Channa Horwitz, Renee Petropoulos, Astrid Preston, Linda Vallejo, Ruth Weisberg, Lita Albuquerque and June Wayne.

A touch of Hallmark sentimentality sneaks in here and there (in the painting, for instance, of mother and baby daughter waking from their nap in the glow of afternoon light), but otherwise the show — tough, tender, humorous and deeply thoughtful — lives up to its title.

Psychological dynamics and professional logistics of motherhood come into play throughout, but the show gets off to a stunning start with a meditation on the physical. Mary Kelly’s 1973 video, “Antepartum,” reads as a canny corollary, across the gender divide, to “Empire” (1964), Andy Warhol’s eight-hour fixed stare at the erect monumentality of the Empire State Building. In Kelly’s piece, also black and white, the frame is filled for 90 minutes with nothing but the sensuous swell of the artist’s pregnant belly, periodically stroked and embraced by her own hands.

One of the most engaging currents threading through the show has to do with reciprocity, the way that children, in effect, birth their parents, endowing them with new, utterly altered identities. In Cheri Gaulke’s poignant “Twin Diptych,” mothers and daughters each get a turn at representing the other. Gaulke and her wife, Sue, pose their teenage twins as winged, gossamer-draped angels, a tongue-in-cheek coda to the similarly staged baby picture the girls hold before them. The girls, in turn, picture their mothers with equally exaggerated grimness, unsmiling, in matching black, their colorful glasses and blue-streaked hair the only overt notes of subversion.

There is much here about holding on and letting go, the intimate beauties and universal vexations of motherhood, the density and palpability of time as experienced by one generation reflecting upon another. Artists can be mothers, of course, but the reverse isn’t possible, according to a poem here by Amy Shimshon Santo: “a mother/can’t become/an artist/because/she already is one.”

--Leah Ollman

Arena 1 Gallery, 3026 Airport Ave., Santa Monica, through April 14. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Images: Cheri Gaulke, ‘The Twin Diptych.’ Left, ‘The Mamas Pose the Babies.’ Right, ‘The Babies Pose the Mamas.’ Credit: Courtesy Santa Monica Art Studios