Kanye Westworld Travis Diehl
@richardhawkins01 Thomas Duncan
Support Structures: Alice Könitz and LAMOA Catherine Wagley
Interview with Penny Slinger Eliza Swann
Exquisite L.A.
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Young Chung
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Letter to the Editor
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Trisha Baga
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Jason Rhodes
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Generous
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Put on a Happy Face:
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Made in L.A. 2016
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The Weeping Line
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Moon, laub, and Love Catherine Wagley
Walk Artisanal Jonathan Griffin
Reconsidering
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Diana Thater
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Informal Feminisms Federica Bueti and Jan Verwoert
Marva Marrow Photographs
Lita Albuquerque
Launch Party Carla Issue 4
Interiors and Interiority:
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Char Jansen
Reviews Claire de Dobay Rifelj,
Matt Stromberg, Hana Cohn,
Lindsay Preston Zappas,
Simone Krug, Keith Vaughn,
Ikechukwu Casmir Onyewuenyi
Le Louvre, Las Vegas Evan Moffitt
iPhones, Flesh,
and the Word
F.B.I.
at Arturo Bandini
Lindsay Preston Zappas
Women Talking About Barney Catherine Wagley
Lingua Ignota
Faith Wilding
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Benjamin Lord
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Char Jansen
How We Practice Carmen Winant
Launch Party Carla Issue 3
Share Your Piece of the Puzzle Federica Bueti
Amanda Ross-Ho Photographs
Erik Frydenborg
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Hot Tears Carmen Winant
Slow View:
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Anna Breininger and Kate Whitlock
Americanicity's Paintings
Orion Martin
at Favorite Goods
Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal
Layers of Leimert Park Catherine Wagley
Junkspace Junk Food
Parker Ito
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White Cube, and
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Evan Moffitt
Melrose Hustle Keith Vaughn
Reviews Benjamin Lord, Aaron Horst, Stephen Kent
Top-Down Bottom-Up Jenny Gagalka
Snap Reviews Aaron Horst, Char Jansen, Randy Rice, Lindsay Preston Zappas
Max Maslansky Photographs
Monica Majoli
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White Lee, Black Lee
William Pope.L’s Reenactor
Travis Diehl
Dora Budor Interview Char Jensen
MEAT PHYSICS/
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Travis Diehl
Art for Art’s Sake:
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Anthony Pearson
A Dialogue in Two
Synchronous Atmospheres
Erik Morse
with Alexandra Grant
SOGTFO
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Jonathan Griffin
#studio #visit
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Mateo Tannatt
Photographs
Jibade-Khalil Huffman
VESSEL // CINS and
VESSEL // PERF
Ben Medansky
I've been a lot of places,
seen so many faces
Nora Slade
Launch Party Carla Issue 1
Slow View:
Discussion on One Work
Anna Breininger
with Julian Rogers
Reviews Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal, Catherine Wagley, Keith Vaughn, Aaron Horst, Kate Wolf, Mateo Tannatt, Evan Moffitt, Cal Siegel
We’re in This Together Lauren Cherry & Max Springer
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2441 Hunter St.
Los Angeles, CA 90021

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Los Angeles, CA 90014

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711 Mateo St.
Los Angeles, CA 90021

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2011 S. Santa Fe Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90021

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406 W. Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90015

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1525 S. Main St.
Los Angeles, CA 90015

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2245 E. Washington Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90021

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2245 E. Washington Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90021

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152 N. Central Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90012

Harmony Murphy
358 E. 2nd St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012

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2245 E. Washington Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90021

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1242 Palmetto St.
Los Angeles, CA 90013

Mistake Room
1811 E. 20th St.
Los Angeles, CA 90058

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250 S. Grand Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90012

Monte Vista Projects
1206 Maple Avenue, #523
Los Angeles, CA 90015

Night Gallery
2276 E. 16th St.
Los Angeles, CA 90021

The Box
805 Traction Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90013

Wilding Cran Gallery
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Los Angeles, CA 90021
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Los Angeles CA, 90012

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Los Angeles, CA 90012
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6150 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90048

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2424 W Washington Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90018

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600 State Dr.
Los Angeles, CA 90037

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1051 S. Fairfax Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90019

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3006 W. 7th St. #220
Los Angeles CA 90005

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5130 W. Edgewood Pl.
Los Angeles, CA 90019

HILDE
4727 W. Washington
Los Angeles, CA 90016

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Los Angeles, CA 90016

Kayne Griffin Corcoran
1201 S. La Brea Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90019

ltd Los Angeles
1119 S. La Brea Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90019

Marc Foxx
6150 Wilshire Blvd. #5
Los Angeles, CA 90048

Martos Gallery
3315 W. Washington Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90018

Ms. Barbers
5370 W. Adams Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90016

Ochi Projects
3301 W. Washington Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90018

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5118 W. Jefferson Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90016

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Los Angeles, CA 90057

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712 S. Grand View St., #204
Los Angeles, CA 90057

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5900 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90036

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3508 W. Washington Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90018

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Los Angeles, CA 90006

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Los Angeles, CA 90034

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Los Angeles, CA 90034

Honor Fraser
2622 S. La Cienega Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90034

Klowden Mann
6023 Washington Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232

Luis De Jesus
2685 S. La Cienega Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90034

MiM Gallery
2636 La Cienega Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90034

Roberts and Tilton
5801 Washington Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232

Samuel Freeman
2639 S. La Cienega Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90034

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6006 Washington Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232
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Los Angeles, CA 90026

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831 Highland Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90038

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Los Angeles, CA 90038

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West Hollywood, CA 90038

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612 N. Almont Dr.
Los Angeles, CA 90069

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1107 Greenacre Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90046

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743 N. La Brea Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90038

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6750 Santa Monica Blvd.
LLos Angeles, CA 90038

Shulamit Nazarian
616 N. La Brea
Los Angeles, CA 90036

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812 Highland Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90038
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1639 18th St.
Santa Monica, CA 90404

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9045 Lincoln Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90045

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Santa Monica, CA 90401

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519 Santa Clara Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90291

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306 Windward Ave.
Venice, CA 90291
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602 Moulton Ave.
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204 S. Avenue 19
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Los Angeles, CA 90023

Chimento Contemporary
622 S. Anderson St., #105
Los Angeles, CA 90023

Ibid.
670 S. Anderson St.
Los Angeles, CA 90023

Ooga Twooga
356 Mission Rd.
Los Angeles, CA 90033

Parrasch Heijnen Gallery
1326 S. Boyle Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90023

Museum as Retail Space (MaRS)
649 S. Anderson St.
Los Angeles, CA 90023

Nicodim Gallery
571 S. Anderson St.
Los Angeles, CA 90033

Venus Over Los Angeles
601 S. Anderson St.
Los Angeles, CA 90023
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145 N. Raymond Ave.
Pasadena, CA 91103

Los Angeles Valley College
5800 Fulton Ave.
Valley Glen, CA 91401

Natural
15168 Raymer St.
Van Nuys, CA 91405

The Pit
918 Ruberta Ave.
Glendale, CA 91201

The Art of Birth

 

Dana Schutz, How We Would Give Birth (2007). Oil on canvas. 60 x 72 inches. Image courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York.

Dana Schutz, How We Would Give Birth (2007). Oil on canvas. 60 x 72 inches. Image courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York.

There are some bodily experiences that overwhelm language. It’s not that they are too intense, or too painful to want to apply words to, it is that language actually cannot contain them. Episodes of physical pain, in particular, “require [a] shattering of language…[they are] fundamentally unsharable”, writes Elaine Scarry in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World.[1] Without the ability to relate certain subjective feelings, we rely on metaphor to do the work for us, conveying meaning through suggestion. Nietzsche, in the spirit of absurdity and resignation, called his pain “dog;” it might have gotten any name, so far was it from being aptly describable in words.[2]

I gave birth[3] to my first child nine weeks ago. The experience of labor, which lasted through the night, and then a day, and then another night, didn’t resemble any of the near-hundreds of representations of it that I’ve seen on television or in the movies over the years. It didn’t resemble any familiar experience at all. I desperately want to explain it, but don’t have the tools. Overly medical language—details of my blood levels, the baby’s pendulous heart rate, and uterine dilatation and effacement—won’t do. Likewise, phrases like “life-changing” feel highfalutin and exclusive.

I turn to metaphor as an intermediary. If I can’t describe it, what, at least, was it like? After the birth of her son Nicholas in 1962, Sylvia Plath wrote in her journal “[It felt like] a huge, black circular weight, like the end of a cannon or a crossbar… was tearing through me.”[4] Her first question to the doctor after delivery—”Did he tear me to bits?”—is echoed by Maggie Nelson, almost fifty years later. “What if I fall to pieces?” she writes in her 2015 book The Argonauts, as she prepares to deliver her first child, Iggy.

Due to my own frustrated and failed attempts to deal with the subject of birth in my creative work, I’ve spent my postpartum life seeking out its representation in contemporary art.[5] Though I was sure I’d find precedent, I’ve largely come up short. I am not very interested in the subject of pregnancy, or the all-inclusive experience of motherhood, for whom Mary Kelly remains the paragon. Artists do occasion these topics—the before and after of childbirth—yet it is the physical action itself that is distinctly lacking from the folios of art history.

I can think of a few reasons for this lack. To no surprise anyone who is awake to culture, art persists as a patriarchal and sexist economy. “Women’s issues”— and what is considered more of a woman’s issue than birth?—are deemed less worthy of making serious visual and critical interventions into. Until a mere few decades ago in this country, soon-to-be-fathers sat in waiting rooms while their wives gave birth without them several hundred feet away. It is not surprising that the image of birth has not yet entered the mainstream as mutually interesting and worthwhile, belonging in different ways to both genders. Just as we have the mistaken idea that terminating pregnancies has nothing to do with the men who were involved in creating them (only women are charged with, and bear the consequences of, illegally seeking abortions in the United States and abroad), our cultural imaginations are too limited around the experience of birth. Relegating “women’s issues” to a less serious platform is a problem, but more importantly, it is a problem that we subdivide and partition issues as strictly as we do in the first place. Our experiences are far from the same; no political, personal, or cultural experience, in other words, strictly belongs to a woman or a man. How we bring life into the world is no exception.[6]

Justine Kurland, Sea Stack (from the Of Woman Born series) (2006). C-print. 30 x 40 inches. Images courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash.

Justine Kurland, Sea Stack (from the Of Woman Born series) (2006). C-print. 30 x 40 inches. Images courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash.

Why else might there be so few images of birth in contemporary art? As opposed to mothering, birth is done is out of sight, often considered too private for even close family members to be present for. Putting aside the difficulty of doing so successfully, transmuting something so intimate into a public (and perhaps commercial) vessel cannot be easy. What good artist has not feared exploiting their most personal moments to offer up as serious “work?”[7] I can understand the impulse to keep the experience private; my partner photographed parts of my delivery, and, upon seeing images a few weeks later—all open legs, red with blood and other fluids— I balked at the idea of sending them to family or friends as planned. I wasn’t exactly embarrassed; in fact I was amazed. I felt very, very vulnerable.

While representations of pregnancy don’t abound within the art world, they are more available than images of birth. Justine Kurland’s 2006 series Of Women Born (a reference to the 1978 manifesto on motherhood by the feminist poet Adrienne Rich and clue about the work’s politics) is a good example. In the pictures, nude, full-term pregnant women cluster sylph-like on the beach and recline inside boulders; in other images, their young children run and swim and sleep among them. As with a handful of other female artists—Alice Neel and Dana Hoey for instance—Kurland extensively pictures the period of gestation, as well as its aftermath. But where are the images of the birthing process—the labor? Too grotesque? Too private? Too much a women’s issue? Not romantic enough (or at all)? Why does that part of the narrative always fall away?

There are really only a handful of contemporary artworks that actually picture the act of birthing as its central focus—most notably the fore-cited Window Water Baby Moving (1959) by the experimental filmmaker Stan Brackhage. A particularly arresting one is by the painter Dana Schutz. Titled How We Would Give Birth (2007), the painting directly, and somewhat fearlessly, depicts as its subject a woman in the midst of having a child. Her near-disjointed legs are spread wide, revealing a halfway-out baby in the center of the canvas. Her arms, which jut out from below a white sheet that is draped across her naked body, hold the sides of the gurney but don’t appear to strain under the burden of delivery. She is all alone.

It takes a lot to pivot attention from a baby coming out of a body, surrounded by an open vagina, pubic hair, and fresh blood. The real nuance of the painting, it turns out, occurs in psychic lines created by the woman’s gaze, directed over her shoulder to a back wall, towards a Hudson Valley School-style landscape painting of a falling waterfall. Her swiveled face, lost in the painting-within-a-painting, is entirely unseen, and the relationship of the woman and the wall painting — however melodramatic — reads as the most meaningful one in the frame. What is happening in this meditative exchange? Does Schutz intend to imbue a kind of subjectivity in her that is usually denied a woman in the moments and hours that she becomes a delivery instrument? Is it a meta reference to the immersive and escapist powers of landscape art, and by proxy, painting itself?[8]

As with all powerful art, its propositions are conflictual. Funny and unsettling, Schutz has made a painting that has competing protagonists and dissenting storylines. But most of all, How We Would Give Birth achieves a double consciousness all its own: it offers up the thing and the metaphor for that thing in the same picture. Here is the event: groin spread open, the bloody sheets, the swollen head and slithery body of a half-fetus, half-baby. And here is the symbol: a figure who turns to the landscape to better understand, feel, and escape from her ineffable condition. Schutz has long believed that painting can achieve both quotidian and fantastical possibilities (SwimmingSmokingCrying (2009), for instance, or Getting Dressed all at Once (2012) are both demonstrative of this vision). Birth, which already contains notes of the superreal and the surreal, is a fitting subject.

Since making the painting in 2007, Schutz had a baby, careening her experience from the imaginary to the realized. Considering how the experience changed her interpretation of her existing work, she said in an audio commentary accompanying her exhibition at The Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, “The fact is, I would paint this differently now [after having giving birth]… Well, I am not sure if I would paint it now. Part of the interest at the time was the not knowing.”

This unknowing, for me, doesn’t shift with the experience, it only intensifies. As I reach for the words to faithfully describe birth, or attempt to make art that does the same, I am continually struck, and even moved, by the ways in which I founder and fall short, and by the visual or linguistic metaphors that arise to bridge the gap created by unknowing. This productive dissonance—between experience and its representation, bodily sensation and the drive to picture it—is always the stuff of great art (it is, to return to the affecting language of Elaine Scarry, its own kind of making and unmaking of the world). Birth, the strangest and most essential kind of entropy, offers us that possibility.

Justine Kurland, Mama Baby, Ocean View (from the Of Woman Born series) (2006). C-print. 30 x 40 inches. Images courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash.

Justine Kurland, Mama Baby, Ocean View (from the Of Woman Born series) (2006). C-print. 30 x 40 inches. Images courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash.

[1] Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford UP, 1985. Print.

[2] Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Walter Arnold Kaufmann. The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. New York: Vintage, 1974. Print.

[3] Margaret Atwood brilliantly undoes this phrase, “giving birth” in her short story of the same name. She writes: “But who gives it? And to whom is it given?… No one ever says giving death, though they are in some ways the same, events, not things. And delivering, the act the doctor is generally believed to perform: who delivers what? Is it the mother who is delivered, like a prisoner being released? Surely not; nor is it the child being delivered to the mother like a letter through a slot. How can you be both the sender and received at once? Was someone in bondage, is someone made free?”

[4] Printed in The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

[5] Ancient art is another matter. While I won’t focus on it here, it is worth mentioning how frequently the birthing female figure is depicted in the pre-modern era. I’ve come across many crude figurations in this research of swollen-bellied women, squatting with babies suspended from between their legs.

[6] Stan Brakhage’s amazing experimental work, Window Water Baby Moving (1959), is a nice example of this. The twelve-minute film documents the birth of Brakhage’s first child, Myrrenna. It was made at home in 1958, as the hospital would not have allowed the artist access to the delivery room with his then-wife Jane. Through fast splices and close, silent shots, the camera switches back and forth between husband and wife, who film one another during labor; as their baby pushes through, Brackage moves in closer, filming its entry.

[7] During a Sophie Calle lecture I once attended in San Francisco, Calle played a video she made of her mother’s final breaths in the process of dying, a piece that had been shown at the Venice Biennale. I felt a mild horror come over the audience; Calle’s only response: “She would have loved the attention.”

[8] Schutz’s painting calls up the great Frida Kahlo work, My Birth (1932), in which Kahlo imagines laboring herself into the world. In it, the baby’s large head has also pushed out of a vagina, exposed through wide-open legs, and pictured in the center of the frame. As in Schutz’s painting, the woman’s face—the artist as her own literal and figurative creator—is covered, in this case by a sheet. Finally, Kahlo’s painting also includes within it a painting-within-a-painting on the back wall. This time, the image, which is of a veiled female figure, is above and behind the birth scene, and the subject makes no contact with it. In part because of this specific denial—not necessarily between woman and baby, but rather woman and art—the birth scene calls up trauma more than transcendence.

 

2016-07-12

Originally published in Carla Issue 5.