by Dr. Jordan Amirkhani
As a weary, young graduate student in the final months of my PhD, a male professor asked me what I was interested in writing about after my dissertation was over; I responded quite plainly, “feminism and motherhood.” He smiled and said, “Why, there is so much on this topic…think about how many ‘Madonna and Child’ images there are! Naturally, there are mothers everywhere. But you’re not a mother!?” Walking away from the conversation angry and dumbfounded by his remarks, I pined for an opportunity to respond. I wanted to remind him that the only thing “natural” within the history of art is the repression of women, a lack of equitable access, and the subsequent representational limits formed by gender stereotypes that mark the discipline. Moreover, just because I wasn’t a mother did not mean that the area was unworthy of study or impossible to navigate. I wanted to scream that the marginalization of maternal narratives from feminist discourse has perpetuated a lack of representation of motherhood, with feminists from across the political and theoretical spectrum negating the mother and her body from their critiques on the auspices that the subject position furthers essentialist ideologies rather than complicates patriarchal orders of gender and power. Mothers, it seems, are bad for feminist business.
So too are victims of abuse, whose experiences are often reduced to testimonial evidence rather than engaged as instantiations of systemic misogyny and patriarchal violence within our society. The discourse of art is complicit in this disavowal of trauma and abuse from worthy critical exploration, demeaning art about trauma as too literal, clinical, personal, or therapeutic (i.e.: anti-conceptual, and thus outside of the disciplinary investments of fine art). Nevertheless, a powerful cohort of contemporary women artists continues to invest in the experience of motherhood and trauma, searching for new ways to negotiate the personal sacrifices, myths, pain, and ambiguities that mark these events as well as the vital opportunities for radical feminist thinking that they provide—Yvette Cummings is one of these artists. Carving out a space where the complexities of women’s experience—both lived and psychic, sensual and affective—is mined for the dynamic, intersubjective, and complex experience that it is, Cummings’ paintings present a powerful response to articulating the memory of trauma and maternal struggles in representation.
Cummings is a painter who makes paintings, thus attendance to the visible, sensible, sticky data of the artist’s exchange with her chosen medium is primary, namely, the artist’s investment in figuration. Figuration provides a manner of insisting on the relevance—even necessity—of sticking with bodies as subjects. Due to the subject matter of her current work, which she states “combines experiences of recalled child abuse, adolescence, and maternal struggles,” depicting the bodies of women and girls grant the subjects, concerns, and politics of Cummings’ work a material and physical site and remind the viewer that figuration is above all the transmutation of ideas into images “whereby ideas and beliefs are given concrete and palpable form.” Cummings’ painterly claims for bodies are loudly trafficked in The Voyeur Series (2015-2017), forty-five 14-by-14 inch painted panels hung in even rows. (Fig. 1) Despite the neat arrangement of the works and their notebook-sized scale, the narrative that unfolds across the trajectory of the canvases is a fragmented one that reveals a disynchronous account of mundane child play. Large pools of solid color and thin black contour lines shape and contain the cropped and ambiguously posed bodies of young girls and boys, transforming the nostalgic, sentimental youths familiarly rendered in classic illustrations into disturbing icons of how and what we project onto children’s bodies. Barring access to their eyes due to the placement and direction of the figures, Cummings’ works allow the viewer an intrusive access. Dresses hiked up above the knee in the midst of a jig, limbs sprawled on the floor while reading or daydreaming, torsos slumped in distracted passivity move uneasily between different constellations of meaning: from sweet casual icons of youthful cavorting to nervous documents of an unsolicited voyeurism, from artful arrangements of popular visual vernacular to menacing sexual display. Uncomfortable and unsettled, these works stand as painful reminders of the ways in which young girls are often depicted in the history of art: inherently innocent, incitingly passive objects upon which the heterosexual male subject might impose his fantasies of dominance and assumptions of sexual availability. This is intensified when the bodies of men enter the image, their suited forms looming over the young bodies, too comfortable, too eager, too bold, too close in position and proximity to the figures we understand to be in need of protection, not seduction.
The loud color palette of these works further the unsettlement. Brash and vibrant, the electric swells of teal, lavender, magenta, and orange clash alongside the neatly contoured borders of stenciled patterns, thus collapsing the space that painting often delineates between foreground and background. In Cummings’ paintings, somehow everything feels in the middle—squeezed and choked into place, with distance rendered between shallow and pure surface. Color does not soothe us, but lifts us further into an anxious state of hesitation and pressure, nor does space allow us the luxury of grounding ourselves in a stable environment. Abuse takes place formally in these pictures—bodies have been threatened, space has been invaded, color has been electrified, the viewer has been implicated.
In this way, Cummings visually manifests or “triggers” the traumatic violence to body and mind that many victims of physical and sexual abuse describe (post-traumatic flashbacks and triggered re-experiencing, feelings of mania or hyper-arousal followed by feelings of evacuation or psychic numbing, fragmented memory and/or negation of memories surrounding the event). While the aestheticization of violence presents tricky ethical problems for an artist, Jill Bennett reminds us, trauma is often engaged in art works in an affective manner, meaning, that “trauma is not evinced in the narrative component or in the ostensible meaning, but in a certain affective dynamic internal to the work.” Thus it seems that works of art that engage trauma rarely operate as narrative testimonies, nor do they move to represent symptoms or easy conceptions of trauma and its effects on the artist or survivor, but seek to find a communicable language of sensation that open up questions of what and how art might tell us about the lived experience and embodied memory of trauma. Cummings’ squeezed spaces, oversaturated color palette, non-linear narrative, and questionable position of figures are not documentary reenactments of abuse, but point to sensory affects dynamically constructed within the painting’s field of operations and images. In transacting rather than communicating trauma, Cummings’ work elides the dead-end of establishing a mode (and thus a meaning) for trauma and instead finds an expansive and supportive feminist politics that art concerned with violence towards women promises “a doorway, a portal…a powerful tool” for mining subjective experience.
Cummings’ engagement with motherhood is boldly articulated in her larger canvases, and like The Voyeur Series, express a rich dialogue with the history and possibilities of painting. The dual portrait of Cummings’ two young daughters in red patterned dresses, When the Magpie Came, provides an evidence of this through its intensely saturated Post-Impressionist use of color and construction of shallow space similar to the Nabis Group aesthetic. (Fig. 3) The two figures stretch across the canvas in a wide pyramid, the youngest daughter taking a pose similar to an Arcadian figure in Matisse’s 1905 Bonheur de vivre with the eldest daughter’s torso leaning and swaggered, arms and legs akimbo. Unlike The Voyeur Series, the eyes of these figures meet ours, calm and clear like the eye of a hurricane, grounding the immense swirl of black magpies hovering dangerously around them. Gashes of blood-red paint puncture the white ground of the work, dripping and clotting like wounds, echoing the deep gash in the older daughter’s upper thigh. Harm has been inflicted onto this young woman, and the birds are too close for comfort, the patches of red paint careless signs of their violent attack. While something outside the picture could indeed be the cause of this wounding where sharp edges and unseen obstacles surely await, the dangerous cyclone of animal movement invites the viewer to elicit blame. The bird perched on the shoulder of the eldest daughter, calm in the company of his keeper, obscures an easy narrative—is “he” offering assurance, or waiting to attack?
While the work of applying narrative and meaning to this work changes markedly based on the viewer, Cummings has described this painting as inhabiting an “unease and discomfort” based on the modes of familial relations. Aware that Cummings is the mother to these injured figures invites us to engage this work as a manifestation of a maternal dynamic. For the young women’s calm and clear stares are not just directed at the viewer or at an artist, but specifically, their own mother. Thus, the child’s wounded body within a charge of angry birds invites the viewer not just into a direct and alarming intimacy with these figures, but into an environment where gendered violence inflicted on female bodies is produced and possible. These are the kinds of psychic fears and experiences that mothers fear, because mothers know. The philosopher and theorist Luce Irigaray describes a psychic “threshold” that binds mother and daughter together intersubjectively through their mutual diminishment within a patriarchal symbolic economy and offers a path for constructing a culture in which they can flourish. Perhaps Cummings’ paintings enact this space—a space of fear and anxiety determined by the obstacles and oppressions that women are forced to navigate, as well as a space where empathy, support, and repair is possible.
Author Cutline: Dr. Jordan Amirkhani is an educator, art historian, critic, and curator of 20th-century modern and contemporary art.