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The Mother of all Exhibits at the Sesnon

Feminist pioneer artist Mary Kelly spoke to a full house at a lively day-long symposium at the Digital Arts Research Center on February 5, 2014, an event which culminated in the opening for Complicated Labors, a multi-media exhibition occupying the Sesnon Gallery until mid-March. Curated by Film and Digital Media Professor Irene Lusztig, the exhibition brought conceptual artists, installationists, and photographers together to engage the audience in a highly welcome dialogue about feminism, maternity, and creative practice in the 21st century.

The symposium was designed to create a space for critical interdisciplinary dialogue around issues of maternity, feminism, art-making, and writing, explicitly updating the 1970s conversation within the current moment and putting writers in conversation with visual artists.

Laborious Contexts

Kelly's path-breaking photographic series, first shown over 30 years ago, Primapara, Bathing Series and Primapara, Manicure/Pedicure Series wrapped around two walls of the main gallery space. The crowded reception gathering of faculty, students, and alumni included Betsy Miller of Museo Carrillo and Natalie Loveless [shown above (r.) with Irene Lusztig and Mary Kelly] Conceptual artist Jill Miller, based in Berkeley, contributed an engaging and witty group of photo installations to acompany the show, including a mesmerizing HD video Unsung Hero in which Miller inserted footage of women carrying out routine domestic chores into robust action video of young men enjoying surfing and other carefree sports.

Return of the Matriarch

Nearly forty years after Mary Kelly’s germinal 1976 exhibition of Post-Partum Document, the work of women artists who explicitly engage with images, processes, and experiences of maternity remains marginalized and relatively misrecognized in the art world. Such was the initial prompt for the ambitious Complicated Labors exhibition. Despite a notable resurgence of attention to the maternal in 21st Century art theory and practice, such work is usually set within a context of sentimentality and identity rather than as representative of larger concerns with ecological systems, ethics, care, or labor.  Complicated Labors vividly investigates this problem, bringing together historical and contemporary work addressing maternal labor to ask questions about the status of feminism —and feminist art—today.