“The stress, the chaos, and the need to simultaneously escape and connect are issue that I investigate in this body of work. We live in a culture where we are both “child centered” and “self-obsessed.” The struggle between living in the moment versus escaping to another reality is intense since these two opposites strive to dominate. Caught in the swirl of soccer practices, play dates, work, and trying to find our way in our “make-over” culture, we must still create the space to find ourselves.” Julie Blackmon, Artist Statement
My lifelong friend, Steph, pointed me in the direction of Julie Blackmon’s photography, and rather blew my mind. I love her domestic scenes and I feel like the tensions she explores — between self and child, beauty and chaos, escape and connection — match up so well with the questions and themes we sometimes explore on Mama Nervosa.
“The expectations of family life have never been more at odds with each other. These issues, as well as the relationship between the domestic landscape of the past and present, are issues I have explored in these photographs. I believe there are moments that can be found throughout any given day that bring sanctuary. It is in finding these moments amidst the stress of the everyday that my life as a mother parallels my work as an artist, and where the dynamics of family life throughout time seem remarkably unchanged. As an artist and as a mother, I believe life’s most poignant moments come from the ability to fuse fantasy and reality: to see the mythic amidst the chaos.” Julie Blackmon, Artist Statement
Blackmon is one of 9 children and a mother of 3. Her photographs are inspired by the domestic scenes of Jan Steen, a 17th century Dutch painter whose ribald scenes of boisterous families are so archetypical that they actually use the phrase “Jan Steen household” to describe messy homes with kids running everywhere. (So, see, my house is like art.) That she can connect these very modern images to art of the 17th century illustrates her point that family dynamics seem “remarkably unchanged” over time. In other words, our worries and issues aren’t news! But isn’t that intriguing?
Where can I begin with what I love about these images? First, I love the settings: beautiful, stylized interiors that feel like they’re from the past. Any of these interiors could be used for a lifestyle blog, right? They’re gorgeous. But the scenes are scattered and often cluttered (see the patio above — numerous balls, the unfurled hose, the brown grass). It’s confusing and exhilerating: can a beautiful space be messy? Seriously, can it?
These images flirt with danger: a child standing in the high chair that’s supposed to keep him safe so an adult can mop in the next room; a child playing with egg shells; a baby standing on the table. The kids aren’t in obvious danger but considering how paranoid modern culture is about child safety and supervision, they are taboo. Is this benign negligence? What would DHS think about children playing near an open fire while Mom has her head buried in an oversized fashion magazine? What do you think about it?
Adults are peripheral, distracted, and preoccupied in Blackmon’s photos. This reminds me of Jen and I discussing children’s television shows in which parents are absent: we enjoy the idea of the home as child-centered, parents as incidental to the dramas of their lives. Blackmon’s photos focus on the children’s experiences and emotions. Often they are naked, messy, and serious: these are not your professional portraits where kids play grown up; these kids mirror adults in expression and complexity. She does not sentimentalize childhood as particularly joyful, innocent, and magical.
Adults are permitted to be self-focused, even indulgent. We’re interested in, even comfortable with that, but when we discussed these shows on facebook, other parents were disturbed by shows that do not feature parental supervision.
This image is called “playgroup” and look how it focuses on the women’s interactions rather than the children. I know that my playdates/playgroups are organized so I can interact with grownups, with my children’s play incidental to that! At the same time, these adults are infantilized a bit, through the elaborate costume dress of the standing woman and the woman curled up on the ground looking up at her (it’s hard to tell, due to the angle, if she’s a grown up or a kid) and the sprawled legs of the woman on the left mirrored by those of the baby. Aren’t we all playing grown up, kinda? She depicts these adults without judgment. Blackmon isn’t taking a stand about the right or better way to parent, but representing tensions in modern parenting culture.
For balance, here’s “Merry Family” by Jan Steen:
I could go on and on analyzing and commenting on these images. What do you think?