Sunday, 29 August 1999

Oh Baby!

Pictures are a rhetoric with which we organize and describe our world. The subjects we depict and the manner in which we treat them reflect our deepest beliefs about ourselves and the world in which we live. Oh Baby! is an exhibition that surveys the representation of children by contemporary artists who are painters, photographers, sculptors, graphic artists, and multimedia and installation artists. The children represented in this exhibition range from babies in utero to pre-schoolers. The images range from direct and naturalistic to oblique, abstract and metaphorical. 

If we look at baby pictures the way we look news photographs, science illustration, and fine art, we process information not simply about the subjects represented. Contained within every genre of image making is information about the intentions, the biases and the sophistication of the picture-maker. Often we don't read this information — we don't see anything more than a straight-forward likeness of little Maria or Sam — because we share so intimately the culture of the picture makers. We don't see the conventions of picture making until we view the images of cultures with which we are unfamiliar, or, until we begin to understand the conventions of our own culture.

Representing a child in Western culture is a celebration of fertility, health, lineage and duty. A feature of most contemporary middle class homes in Canada is a shrine-like installation in the living room or "family room" that contains at least one baby photograph of each son and daughter. In the past, these pictures were mostly taken by professional photographers. Today, with auto-focus cameras and affordable film processing, such pictures are often taken by parents and family members. These contemporary folk shrines celebrate modern neo-natal care and the virtual elimination of childhood disease. It is okay to represent children today, because we know, with a greater degree of certainty, that they will survive.
The celebration of fertility is not shared by everyone at all times. Physically, intellectually and emotionally immature, babies can represent the antithesis of human beauty and grace, or, may be simply an unwelcome reminder of our own shortcomings. For those who don't "breed," babies are quite ridiculous — alien, invasive, destructive, quasi-human beings who disrupt the seamless flow of adult culture. Mostly, those who don't celebrate babies, don't represent them, except to describe dislocation and absurdity. 

Some of the artists in this exhibition are parents of the children represented. Others are not. While reflections on aspects of parental bonding may inform some of the images, this exhibition is not about parenthood. Neither is this group of images meant to draw a picture of infancy and childhood as such. Some of the images of children are imagined — signifying the feelings and energies that we associate with childhood. Other images are absurd — images of children in surreal contexts or fashioned from unexpected media — juxtapositions that express adult feelings of dislocation, paradox or fantasy. The images in Oh Baby! may say less about children than they do about the symbolic role that children play in adult lives. In fact, these images may not be about babies at all.

While tidying up some shelves in my home, I come across a thick envelope of colour photographs. I pause from my cleaning to shuffle through the dozens of out -of- focus, poorly framed and red-eyed pictures of my son. There is one that is in focus, and not too badly cropped, where my little boy smiles back at the camera, like I want him to. Life, in this picture, is not chaos. It is proof — needed proof — that our life is in focus, and "framable." It is proof too, that my son is happy. I set that one aside and put the rest of the pictures back in the envelope.


Images of childhood have been used as indictments and propaganda of state. Charles Dickens created narrative images of contemporary children in nineteenth-century England to symbolize the moral bankruptcy of the existing social order. A standard feature of Fascist and Communist propaganda during this century has been the image of the charismatic leader surrounded by an adoring brood of children, symbolizing the patriarchal benevolence and superior wisdom of the dictatorship. Today, the image that has the greatest potential to mobilize communities, even entire nations, to political, charitable or military action, is often the image of abused, abandoned and malnourished infants and children.
Sybil Goldstein, Gestation Study
In the twentieth century, contemporary artists have typically avoided the talismans, totems and traditional subjects of folk culture, seeking instead connections to the text-based, humanist culture of the modern academies. Artists, however, are only slightly less susceptible the forces of fertility celebrated so avidly by the rest of the culture.

When artists do tackle fertility, they can bring a broader spectrum of colours and tones to the subject. Artists such as Sybil Goldstein visualize the internal emotional and physical processes of birth. Goldstein, in her Gestation Studies, conjures the sketchy, impressionistic features of the as yet unborn child — a process of mental imaging not unlike the nesting actions that often occur shortly before the onset of labour. These images are as much about defining hope, fear and the unknown as they are about visualizing birthing. While fear and apprehension appear to have disappeared in the Newborn Studies and Portrait Studies, (both completed shortly after the birth of her child) these images still share the same bubble of subjectivity and maternal focus of the Gestation Studies

In contrast, Judy Major-Girardin, who also represents the gestation process, demonstrates less interest in visualizing the character and features of the unborn child than in naming the process itself. Her images outline a process with the vaguest of contours, and suggest this awareness is best described as intensely warm and luminous colour fields. In contrast, birthing is named by Lorène Bourgeois as graphic and cathartic: an exclamation of physical joy and pain in the form of a graphically illustrated breach birth, based on a sixteenth century maquette from Florence's natural history museum, La Specola.

Sheila Butler's expressionist renderings of newborn infants exist within a maternal bubble that is fraught with ambivalence. Butler contrasts powder pinks with the grimmest flat blacks; images of mother and child are layered one on top of the other, bound together, yet apart and antagonistic. These images allude perhaps to that mixture of love, loathing and despair, characteristic of postpartum depression, but may also suggest to us the complexity of the familial bond that lasts long past infancy. Margaret Belisle also investigates the complexity of families as a pull of contradictory forces. She describes the chaos of infant care and responsibility in the family, representing in photographs the stories that are usually communicated as oral histories and dispatches from the "family conflict zone."

Clair Cafaro also identifies the black moments of postpartum depression in her installation Motherlove. Here, an empty crib and an unused diaper form an abstracted representation of a baby. In Cafaro's image, however, the cartoon teddy-bears and clowns on the waist band of the Huggie disposable diaper have metamorphosed into a lament. Cafaro, Butler and Belisle, it seems, have all walked in the underworld, where there are two bubbles instead of one, and where pink and baby blue are sometimes also black.

Julie Voyce, Mary Catherine Newcomb, Cathy Daley, Sally McKay and Aidan Urquhart by contrast explore the themes of infancy in a detached manner. In the work of these artists babies may function as colours, tones, textures and rhythms, or by lending thematic contrast to a narrative space. As a group their similar and uninidivuated appearance seems to suggest a platoon from an absurd army — made even more absurd by their completely random and spontaneous movement. In this spirit, Aidan Urquhart's baby multiples form a humorously rhythmic, repetitive battalion of spawn. 

Aidan Urquhart, Confessions of a Former ToddlerJulie Voyce and Cathy Daley's work operates with an ironic, dark humour, reminiscent of nightmare images of babies lost in the woods, falling from window ledges and dropping out of our arms. These are babies out of control — mental images more typical of people for whom the care and feeding of infants is a concern. Babies in Julie Voyce's image world are mythological creatures with disproportionately large heads who exist as pudgy icons of wonderment and worship. These are surreal images, at once cute and threatening. Like tiny Buddhas, corpulent and smiling, they seem to be possessors of an esoteric vision, and a malevolent adult knowledge. 

The comical physical ungainliness of babies makes for a buoyant liveliness in Cathy Daley's drawings. The baby has become a formal device — a dynamic movement with consequence — rendering an image as perverse as the unfortunate fall from the tree top in the classic lullaby, Rock-a-Bye Baby. Similarly, Mary Catherine Newcomb's highly naturalistic water-filled, rubber infant effigy bridges the ambiguous territory between play doll and figurative sculpture. Her rubber baby is a sly and humorous confrontation with the maternal fear of literally dropping the baby, and perhaps a figurative acknowledgment of the ability of children to survive the occasional parental fumbling. It is also a darkly ironic meditation on the transient mortality of flesh. 

Perhaps we tend to associate rubber with babies because so much of an infant's life is rubberized. Squeeze toys, teethers and soothers form a large part of a baby's unprotected interface with the world. Sally McKay's Lost Soother Project is a photo documentation of half a dozen soothers found at the road side. Photographed in the studio, the little roughed-up and run-over ciphers of displaced infant emotion seem like baby surrogates — abandoned children — each one representing a trauma in miniature.

A desire to find meaning in the image of the infant is characterized by ambiguous and changing representations. In the photographs of Gordon Laird, Ron Hewson, in the paintings of Rae Johnson, and in the sculpture of Tom Dean, babies are alternatingly absurd and delightful, strange and familiar, malevolent and innocent — barometers perhaps, of changes taking place within the artists themselves. Come funghi della terra, the Italians say — "like mushrooms from the earth" — packed in back packs in two's, or left in a box of groceries, wielding guns or emerging from the earth, we grapple, along with the artists, with the arbitrariness of fertility.

Children refocus our gaze and draw attention to physical and emotional phenomena. In observing the processes of development, we understand more about ourselves. Representing the child may be a way to communicate the experience of wonder. For photographer April Hickox, the deafness of her child Alex became a process of personal dedication and discovery. In the process of learning to communicate with her daughter, Hickox was able to touch a new world of experience — a world of sensation, colour, texture, shapes, and movements, unbounded by conventional language. These images may represent some of the best we can experience if we look, listen, and take the time to learn from our children.

Gordon Hatt, 1999

Works in the Exhibition

Lorène Bourgeois, Toronto, Ont.
Ouvrage, 1999, oil on panel, 23.5" (diameter).

Margaret Belisle, Toronto, Ont.
Keith, 1989, colour photograph, 20 x 30".
Care and Feeding, 1988-91, colour photograph, 20 x 33".

Sheila Butler, London, Ont.
Lullaby, 1998, oil chalk pastel, acrylic, gouache & charcoal), 21 x 30".
Bedtime , 1998, oil chalk pastel, acrylic, & charcoal), 24" x 31".
Morning , 1998, oil chalk pastel, acrylic, gouache & collage), 24" x 31.5".

Clair Cafaro, Toronto, Ont. 
Cicatrix #9 , 1998, oil and plastic toy on wood, 12" x 6" x 3".
Cicatrix: Girl in A Red Dress , 1998, oil on canvas, 3.5' x 2.5'.
Motherlove , 1998, mixed media, 4' x 3.5' x 1.5'.

Cathy Daley, Toronto, Ont. 
Untitled , 1995, pastel on vellum, 30" x 80".
Untitled, 1995, pastel on vellum, 36" x 42".

Sybil Goldstein, Toronto, Ont.
Gestation Studies #1- 8 , 1992, oil on wood, 8" x 6" each.
New Born Studies #1 - 3 , 1993, oil on wood, 8" x 6" each.
Portrait Studies #1 - 4 , 1993, oil on wood, 12" x 8" each.

Ron Hewson, Kitchener, Ont.
Piano Fun , 1998, colour print enlargement from Polaroid SX70, 20x20".
Miriam Sleeping , 1995, colour print enlargement from Polaroid SX70, 20x20".
Paul Sleeping , 1998, silver print enlargement from Polaroid 667 , 9" x 13".
Boy with Gun , 1987, silver print , 9" x 13".
Parent Pretenders , 1985, silver print , 9" x 13".

Tom Dean, Toronto, Ont.
Untitled (baby head), 1992, pigmented plaster, 12" x 8" x 8".
Untitled (baby bum), 1992, pigmented plaster, 12" x 8" x 8".

April Hickox, Toronto, Ont.
When the Mind Hears , Part I, 1993, multimedia installation , 10' x 14'.
When the Mind Hears Part II , 1993, two silver prints, 50.8 x 60.96 each.

Rae Johnson, Flesherton, Ont.
Fire-baby , 1999, oil and ink on paper, 84" x 48".
Baby in the Woods , n.d., oil on plywood, 8' x 4'.
Cain's Seed , 1992, oil on canvas, 78" x 84".

Gordon Laird, Guelph, Ont.
Untitled , 1999, 2 chromogenic prints, 24" x 36" each.
Untitled, (Karen, Kusta and Cezanne), silver print, 5" x 8".
Untitled, (Badlands), 1995, silver print, 5" x 8".
Untitled, (Groceries), 1995, chromogenic print, 6" x 10".

Judy Major-Girardin, Cambridge, Ont.
Nucleus , 1994, acrylic on canvas, 48" x 48".
Birth , 1993, acrylic, ink and chalk on paper, 23" x 30".
Newborn , 1993, acrylic, ink and chalk on paper, 23" x 30".

Sally McKay, Toronto, Ont.
The Lost Soother Project , 1999, laser print, 18 x 24".

Mary Catherine Newcomb, Kitchener, Ont.
Bag of Mostly Water , 1999, water, rubber, human hair, 36" x 18" x 12".

Aidan Urquhart, London, Ont.
Confessions of a Former Toddler , 1999, mixed media installation.

Julie Voyce, Toronto, Ont.
My Diva , 1997, watercolour, 10.5 x 8.5".
The Kidnapping, 1997, watercolour, 8.5 x 10.5".
Really New Baby, 1995, watercolour, 10.5 x 8.5".
A Girl and Her Brother, 1996, watercolour, 10.5 x 8.5" .
The Gown, 1996, watercolour, 10.5 x 8.5".
Baby Landing, 1996, watercolour, 10.5 x 8.5".

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