For the past decade, Houston-based artist Emily Peacock has built a body of work reflecting intimate issues concerning mental health, family, and motherhood with humorous, conceptual devices rendered using photographic and mixed-media processes. Portraiture in her solo exhibition Pure Comedy (2019) at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas featured a pair of oval portraits of the artist and her partner in hazmat suits, reifying the anxiety of new parents in the many measures necessary to protect their child and rear him in a safe environment. Peacock explores these personal themes and experiments with new material in two new Houston shows, Lightweight at Jonathan Hopson Gallery and die laughing at Lawndale Art Center.
The intimate feeling of Jonathan Hopson Gallery, with its deep wood panel trim, white walls, and plentiful natural lighting, provides a domestic ambiance to Peacock’s Lightweight. The exhibition is a re-examination of the icons and media of middle-class childhood with a photographer’s eye and a historian’s heart.
The Polaroid camera is one specific media Peacock uses in shows at both Jonathan Hopson and Lawndale that intersects with her upbringing and interest in photographic history. A series of nine Polaroids titled The Portrait Selection (2021) features individual exposures as small, upcycled paintings. Armed with spray paint, the artist creates silhouettes of a variety of mat shapes used in framing. The four photographs in the bottom left of the series include the dreaded brown background on the instant developing film — a visual indication that the film is old and can no longer expose an image. Peacock playfully punches through these brown backgrounds with central, robin’s egg blue forms. The painting on the bottom right is a coupling of oval shapes in front of an overexposed Polaroid backdrop; a horizontal brown band at the top suggests a brow. The orange shapes positioned below the brow resemble two wide-open eyes.
Peacock continues to experiment with media and shape-making in several drawings in the gallery, which invoke childhood memories of sitting on the floor at home and coloring for hours— not unlike aspects of the artist’s own experiences raising her toddler. The compositions of these pictures share the austere situating of the forms to each other, as seen in Peacock’s earlier still-life photography of snack food. In Reduced and minor (2021), seven separate figures are imaginatively layered with shapes and decorative elements rendered in Prismacolor pencil. The two most prominent central forms with their scalloped edges share profiles with snack foods like Ritz Crackers and Pop-Tarts, and historical examples of decorative borders used in early photography. In a horizontal band at the bottom of the drawing, three shapes emulate an eye’s anatomical structure and a camera’s internal mechanisms.
The exhibition includes one series of photographs called Bayou Behemoths (2021), which explore similar forms seen in historical framing and matting in the use of the negative space of the sky around the trees. Using an infrared effect to develop the image, the Port-Arthur-born Peacock guides viewers in reexamining the Gulf-Coastal explosion of kudzu, with a childlike sense of imagination — overgrown bushes and trees become purple monsters akin to Grimace (the veteran McDonald’s mascot) and Barney the Purple Dinosaur.
Photographic works at Peacock’s exhibition die laughing at Lawndale Art Center depart from the mischievous humor of Lightweight to a darker comedy. A portrait Helluva Performa (2021), leaning against the gallery wall and held in place with insulation foam, features the artist’s son Indiana, dressed as Spiderman posing with a magnolia. On a column facing this portrait is die laughing, a self-portrait of the artist engaging the viewer directly with exhausted eyes, her son’s fist in her mouth. While one reading might be an East Texan Saturn Devouring her Child, her eyes betray her desire to escape. The bottom right corner exposes her giggling son.
Another installation in the gallery includes a series of four framed Polaroid pictures called Relentless & Bananas (2021). Three of the images are self-portraits, the artist wearing a Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) apparatus. Each image represents a single beat of the triadic pulse of the TMS device, a form of therapy used to stimulate nerve cells in the brain for patients with depression. The fourth image concluding the series is a picture of a pair of overripe bananas. The artist uses the literal representation of the colloquial metaphor “going bananas” to de-stigmatize shame concerning mental health. While past mental health issues she has tackled visually have touched on grief, loss, and postpartum depression, the title and images in this work testify to Peacock’s recent experience in a mental rehabilitation facility.
die laughing at Lawndale is not all dark humor, with cheeky works like the short, looped video Salami Mommy (2021) and a plaster casting of the artist’s elbow called Funny Bone: I Don’t Feel It ‘Til It Hurts (2021). Peacock’s work in both shows conceptualizes a range of comedic styles, from witty wordplay to self-deprecation. Comedy even becomes media in her art; one sculpture at Jonathan Hopson is supported by cast Whoopie cushions. Equal to her love of humor, both exhibitions are testaments to her passion for film photography and its history, and its influence is palpable throughout all her works, photographic or otherwise.