Morning Sun, Benita Carr’s exhibition of photography and video on display at Whitespace Gallery, gives motherhood further dimension with its visual contrast of warming early light and interior shadows, echoing the dualities of anxiety and independence, sexuality and innocence, and expectation and release within the modern mother. “Desire, doubt, and anxiety” are part of the motherly identity, as Carr purports in her artist’s statement and elucidates in her photographs.
The barred shadows that fall across the mom in Morning Sun #1835, Morning Sun #1836, and Morning Sun #1837 beckon the viewer to ridicule her for having enjoyed a night out. She seems to wake up in hungover regret, or possibly just sleepiness, her eyes drooped against the sun that cuts through the blinds.
This series of three photographs first shows her draped diagonally across her child’s sheet-less bed with her thighs and arms hastily arranged in angles that signify deep sleep. She is alone in the room, though a demon appears in a black shape against the wall like a comic-book bubble displaying a bad dream playing in the mother’s slumbering mind. Its devil’s horns rise above the bed, looking cartoonish against the wall canvassed with clumsy huddles of children’s stickers. Next to these miniature clusters, gentle portraits of baby animals and their nurturing parents mock the grimness of the dark room. It must be the usual early morning hour when her son’s overflowing energy can no longer maintain stasis. He has kicked the blankets away, rising even before the harsh new sunlight has usurped the pre-dawn haze.
In the following picture, though, we can see that the demon is only her little boy dressed in a superhero costume, coming to save her from the night. He stands above her on the mattress as she leans her groggy body into his small hands, revealing the bare back that emerges from her unzipped dress. A single horn of his mask shows, looking like a feather standing jauntily in a cap; the boy’s shadow now mimics Peter Pan’s silhouette and invites her to forget the adult cares of the evening before.
In the next image, the boy has raced away on another superhero’s quest, probably to the kitchen for bowl of cereal, trusting that his mom will join him soon. She’s made it to the final stage of reluctant waking: the act of propping oneself on the edge of the bed, willing the eyelids to unglue themselves, thinking “I have no more minutes to not be awake.” Presumably her next move will be to peel off yesterday’s sexy-but-sensible outfit, admiring it once more along the way, and replace it with the more practical cotton pajamas that her son likes to clutch while she makes breakfast.
The scenes in Morning Sun #1835-1837 let the viewer think that maybe this woman is a “bad mother” by traditional standards. There’s reluctance in her; she seems weighted with the idea of being a complete modern woman. She wanted to assure herself that she could still have fun, that she could have any life of her own. Today, a mother who only mothers—i.e. stays at home to take care of the kids, makes most meals, and shuttles children in an unseemly vehicle—is not enough. There is the expectation that she will also take yoga classes twice a week, or participate in a ladies book club, or wine-tasting night, or meal-of-the-month group. Mental health is the key to good parenting, and our culture equates mental health with “me time.” While nice in theory, that luxury necessitates getting the hell away from your children and sticking them with your spouse. This redistribution of labor is effective for gender equality but greatly reduces the efficiency of the parental machine.
Carr drew on Victorian imagery to emphasize these modern expectations. She says in her artist’s statement:
I am particularly interested in how womanhood/motherhood has been seen, understood, and lived across time, especially its representation in art, religion, advertising, and family pictures. The style and symbolism of mid-Victorian images of interiors and feminine subjects are an inspiration.
She interprets visions of childbearing from disparate viewpoints within Western culture, and her photographs are sensitive to the multiple understandings of the mother figure. The pictures do not glorify the Madonna image, though, and by emphasizing the disconnections between what a mother should be and what a mother is, Carr pays a more important homage.
Many of the photographs feature nude mothers with their children. These cause some ambivalence in the viewer. Since they feature mothers and their children, I automatically chose to perceive them with an innocent eye that links the nude form with childbirth and the comfort of family (as a unit separate from society). This is a way that the home relaxes the rules and expectations of public spaces.
Carr doesn’t let these images lie complacently in this idealization, though. I couldn’t ignore the luxurious, suggestively colorful drapery of the bed in Morning Sun #428, in which a mom—naked except for beige underwear, thin from overuse—stretches leisurely against satin and velvet pillows. Her fully clothed son sits at her feet and, holding a flashlight, illuminates the loose skin of her once-pregnant belly. Most strikingly sexual is the resemblance of the image to Manet’s Olympia, which famously depicts a nude prostitute (marked with a black silk ribbon tied around her throat) lying on a heavily cushioned mattress as a maid offers flowers from the foot of the bed.
Other photographs display a similarly questionable sexuality. The mother in Morning Sun #410 is dressed and posed like a dominatrix of potty training. She dons the black silky robes women collect for the exclusive purpose of shrugging them off to reveal something smaller and lacier—which is exactly what we see as the boy (clothed) on the toilet tugs one side of the robe open. Further, the cropping of the photograph leaves the mother headless and the kid as just set of calves and a pair of miniature Converse sneakers, playing off of the objectification of bodies typically seen in advertisements that veil the humanity of the people inhabiting them.
Sexuality also mingles with symbols of childhood in Morning Sun #2115. In an aerial view of a playroom, as if the camera were placed in the ceiling fan, it depicts the woman lying flat on a bearskin rug. Her jersey dress is not-quite-accidentally scrunched above her impeccably maintained landing strip, and the coy posture of her hands behind her head suggests comfort with such a sensual pose. There is a languid expression on her face that invites the viewer to posit that this is an ordinary act for her to commit amongst toy cars and board games.
Carr’s look at the modern mother implies an attempt her as a person both outside and inside the domestic structure. But sometimes there is no reconciliation—sex and lewd poses leak from the inner life into the routine between nap time and playtime. This doesn’t make them bad mothers. Rather, Carr sees them as dynamic characters whose anxiety to feel complete only contributes to their roundness. They are more than their relationships to their children, though that’s important, too.
Benita Carr’s exhibition, Morning Sun, continues at Whitespace Gallery through February 18, 2011.