Commissioned by ATHICA for this solo show, which runs through February 28, Amy Jenkins’ video Audrey Superhero updates the adventures of her daughter, who first made national art-world news before her second birthday.
Jenkins has long explored the more universal dimensions of her own life and her own body; a memorable early video (not in this exhibition), run in reverse, shows her seemingly cleansing the water of her bathtub as the blood of her menstrual emission disappears whence it came. She has brought a similarly archetypal intensity to the experience of motherhood.
This got her into trouble when she agreed to make work for a show in which each contribution was to be inspired by a Salvatore Ferragamo fashion design. Jenkins’ response was The Audrey Samsara. Centrally displayed in the ATHICA show, the video presents Jenkins breastfeeding 18-month-old Audrey. The child is naked except for her red shoes, a design Ferragamo called “The Audrey” (after Audrey Hepburn). Jenkins the mother is robed in black, and since her face is out of the frame, only her hands and breast are exposed.
Something about the work—which featured videographic dissolves between Jenkins’ Renaissance-Madonna poses and extreme closeups of a child blissfully sucking a breast—proved too much for display in a fashionable Fifth Avenue store. The video was removed from the exhibition, which was titled (with unintentional irony) Sweet & Sour: A Fashionable Exhibition of Provocative Paradoxes. The store’s abrupt action made its way into the annals of censorship, and censorship of motherhood, no less. (Full disclosure: I wrote a short essay about the controversy at the time, titled “Will Apple Pie Be Next?”) Thus did Audrey’s picture appear in art magazines that might otherwise have ignored a commercially commissioned artwork. (The Ferragamo name was kept out of it.)
Now Audrey is seven, and the nonprofit ATHICA has commissioned Audrey Superhero, in which Audrey appears in her Superman costume and tells her mother that she has wanted to be a boy ever since she was born. “I don’t want a boyfriend, I want a girlfriend,” she continues.
Jenkins videos Audrey watching a Superman movie on DVD in which Lois Lane asks Clark Kent if he likes pink, and he responds that he likes pink very much. This series of videos, like Audrey’s life, is a work in progress, in which Audrey continues to write her own script with her mother as the director.
Other works in the ATHICA show reverse the positions of mother and child in clever ways: Milky-Milk situates the viewer beneath a video monitor featuring a closeup of a female breast, which emits a single drop of milk that lands squarely on the camera lens and is tenderly wiped away. Shitfit features a video of Jenkins throwing an infantile temper tantrum in a bedroom. The video can only be viewed through an aperture in a miniature door—thus brilliantly combining the notion of a child sent to her room and a feminist reclamation of the notorious peephole in Marcel Duchamp’s final work of art.
ATHICA founder and curator Lizzie Zucker Saltz intended the show to explore “non-sexual nudity,” and the carefully chosen production still from Tug (a video that wasn’t available) sums up that theme: The naked toddler Audrey clings to her naked mother at one end of a thick scarlet rope, the other end of which is being pulled by Audrey’s naked father. Neither adult’s head is visible in the picture. It’s only one moment in a video of family dynamics, but it recalls the allegory-laden tone of Baroque painting more than anything else, and sex (but not gender) has nothing to do with it.
ATHICA supplements the show with an educational niche and children’s play area.
A well-known critic, poet, and ART PAPERS staff member, Dr. Jerry Cullum has been a keen observer of the metro Atlanta scene for decades.