“There was no way on this earth I could have had children and the career I've had.” So said feminist-art pioneer Judy Chicago in 2012, raising a point about art and motherhood that is currently being explored at Mayfair gallery Richard Saltoun.
“Part 2: Maternality is a very conceptual show,” says curator Catherine McCormack, explaining that “the exhibition finds its starting point in the etymological root of the word ‘mother’ as synonymous of matter”. But the show is also part autobiographical (McCormack had two children while researching her PhD in art history) and at points incredibly visceral. “There’s a long tradition of body art and artists using bodily fluid – from Marc Quinn’s blood to Piero Manzoni’s faeces – but the use of the maternal body and its materials hasn’t had much art-world recognition,” says McCormack. “For that reason, I’ve shown a work called Milkscapes by Aimee Gilmore, which uses breastmilk in the same way as paint or ink. It resembles an expressionist painting, which she’s printed onto fabric.”
Fabric is a key element in the exhibition. US artist Carmen Winant, whose photo-collage My Birth was bought by the New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2018, is represented by a new work, Woman Must Write Herself, with found images stitched onto silk fabric, resembling a quilt. And from Robyn LeRoy-Evans, another young US artist, comes That Which We Can Never Know, an evocative installation using “swathes of blue velvet to give the suggestion of a maternal body”.
There’s also striking photographic work from the 1960/’70s by Danish avant-garde artist Kirsten Justesen, whose Torso series looks at the performance of the pregnant body. “Women making work about their experience as a mother hasn’t traditionally been taken very seriously,” says McCormack. “I want to continue to change that conversation, which was stimulated by feminist artists in the 1970s” – some of whom also feature in Part 2: Maternality.
By Chicago there’s a tapestry called The Crowning (1982) from her series The Birth Project, while the late British sculptor and photographer Helen Chadwick (who, like Chicago, didn’t have children) is represented by Viral Landscape No 3 (1988-89), an image of the Pembrokeshire coast overlaid with cells from her own body.
“The political territory of the maternal isn’t just the concern of women who’ve had babies. It’s of universal importance,” says McCormack, adding that initiatives such as Richard Saltoun Gallery’s 12-month programme 100% Women are crucial to addressing gender inequality in the art world. When 68 per cent of artists represented at top London commercial galleries are men (as the Freelands Foundation reported was the case in 2018), this show has a very positive message – and it’s powerfully delivered.