Any mom that’s ever schlepped her kids to a playdate could testify to the perennial conversation fodder that is the Birth Story. Tales of hours of pain, drugs, no drugs, mean nurses, midwives, ripped body parts and the vitreous effects of life coming into the world are the sorts of pleasant lady-like subjects that women nosh on at such gatherings (while their offspring caterwaul and jostle all around them). Get a group of fathers together, and I’d wager a hefty sum that you’d never hear such talk, though many fathers play a fair and admirable, dare I say indispensable role in the herculean effort that is birth.
As rare as it is to hear men regale an audience with birth stories, it’s perhaps rarer still to see an artistic relaying of birth and fatherhood that isn’t sickening, sentimental schlock. Motherhood finds many artistic iterations, many wholly unsentimental, many a bit grotesque (think Marlene Dumas), but rarely do we see any sort of paternal reckoning in art. (Literature, maybe, has the monopoly on the theme.)
So it’s a refreshing thing, I think, that curator Anne Lawrence has put together at Bows and Arrows’ annexed art space in a show called Nest, with work by Michael Mazurek and Jesse Morgan Barnett, two artist-fathers that poetically engage notions of fatherhood here in work that is as pristine and chalky white as birth is bloody.
Jesse Barnett’s floor installation of all-white buckets, rags and a plaster cast of a pregnant woman’s torso is a sort of Natural History Museum diorama of the father’s disconnect from the pain of childbirth — an unsullied, though earthy scape that points to work — the filling up and pouring out of vessels, both metaphorical and otherwise. A video nearby shows falling snow, with intermittent shots of male penguins tending to their charge – their unhatched baby in an egg – while they wait for the mother to return with food. Across the room is a pile of white towels and a vertical row of pieces of paper marked with various times, presumably all the times the father got up to tend to the baby. There’s also a picture of an empty unmade bed.
Michael Mazurek’s work here is a mad-cap assemblege of wood and metal and things leaned against the walls. It feels like a madman’s attempt a building a fortress, or at least a lean-to. There is a wonderful sort of frenzy about it all, a kind of panic, that any new father could relate to — a primal need to build and make ready the home for the newbie.
In the far back section of the gallery, Mazurek has projected an image of a couch turned on its side. Like Barnett, he’s suggesting a great many things about parenthood in this simple image, not least of which is a lack of rest, but also a sense of the world turned upside down, to employ a cliche. I overheard Mazurek telling someone at the opening that he realized he had to pursue art in earnest when his daughter was born. He decided that he had to make that his life. He’s quite right to describe the thrust into parenthood as a clarifying moment, because nothing makes you think about death so much as witnessing your own progeny come into the world. Time speeds up. Things get serious. The nest, and all the lives in it, must get built, quickly, and best.