Life will unhinge a person. At one point in the last year, Shelly Leavens was on her own with her baby at their house trying to juggle a stupid number of tasks when she looked up and noticed an old painting she'd made of a dapper gentleman holding a cigar out to one side, between puffs or witticisms. Life-size, with his head cocked and his hair perfectly oiled and smoothed, he was living somewhere else.
"Don't just stand there!" she shouted. "Give me a hand!"
Life will unhinge a person, it's true; the painted man, however summoned, did not spring to sudden life. But something did come of her outburst. She decided he was not a painting. She decided he ought to be a standing cardboard cutout. So she sliced him out of his canvas and pressed him into service as an ambassador from the infuriating and silly world of a gendered past that often pokes into the present in absurd ways. Now he stands in a pointed context: He's in the middle of Leavens's first solo show at PUNCH Gallery, a show of wire sculptures of breasts in various states, alarmingly hot-pink-painted toys (Toys for a boy on Flecainide, a drug for serious heartbeat irregularities), glass-encased bullets from the attic, homemade psychotherapy wallpaper, and pillows stuffed with dead neighborhood bird feathers.
These are the products of Leavens's first year as a mother.
Motherhood in art is typically expressed as an idyll. It looks something like this. "She's never, you know, punishing the Christ child," says Jean Sorabella, in an online audio slide show made by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Leavens titled her show Mother//Hood. Those slashes are important. The show is as much about change as about simply being a mother. The changes are disruptive and disconcerting, and they're taking place seemingly everywhere based on this art: on Leavens's body, in Leavens's South Seattle neighborhood, in the transition of the old house she and her husband bought coming into her young family's new hands.
What will happen to the neighborhood? If young white artists are buying, can gentrification be far away? Leavens seems to wonder about the fate of where she lives, and her place in its past, present, and future, in a video of what she sees when she takes the walk she takes every day, around her block. She pointed the camera toward the houses she passes, and every one has a chain link fence. The video is bisected by a continuous line of fencing. On some fences there are warnings about guard dogs. The video is called We're Linked, tongue planted in cheek. Are we linked? Who's "we"?
One of the sculptures is The Foreman's Chair, a baby swing fashioned from grey industrial felt, hung from the ceiling by orange extension cords. It looks like it's unsafe, strung up quickly and made of unsturdy felt—like it's no place to put a fragile and precious baby human. Yet the title, The Foreman's Chair, suggests the baby is the one in the room who issues verdicts. Or orders. In certain ways, a mother comes to discover she is never safe from her child. She keeps this to herself.
A trio of sculptures made of copper wire are a cartoon on the wall: Pregnant, Nursing, and Weaned, each a pair of breasts in a state. But the cartoon has a certain no-nonsense dignity. (Think of a cartoon portrait like this compared to another cartoon representation of breasts: the word "hooters." Just try maintaining an iota of dignity when you say "hooters.")
The copper wire Leavens used to shape the breasts is thick and strong. Each breast is a rising spiral: simple, economical, almost a geometric abstraction. And copper wire, like breast milk, is both anachronistic and life-sustaining. We think of our world as digital, but the truth is that it's wired as hell, we just never see those giant "data centers"; similarly, the babies of plenty of mothers benefit from the invention of substitute breastmilk (its weird name: "formula"), but the presence or absence of breastmilk still means life or death for many early humans in plenty of places.
I find it paradoxically reassuring—probably because I am the mother of a new baby myself, and I don't want my many identities to get congealed into only one, and one that will have to appear G-rated for the next decade—that there is terribleness on the edge of Leavens's show.
The bullets she found in the house's attic are paired with a fictional "found" letter (that she wrote), from the perspective of a man whose wife left him there in the house with the kid. He saves two bullets to kill her if she ever comes back. Both sides are horrible to think of: that he will kill her, and that she had to leave.
Maybe the most terrible truth in Mother//Hood is that while being an adult responsible for a child involves a lot of snuggling and cuteness, it also produces a spike in your general level of fear that's neither flattering nor reversible. I think it's fair to say that as mothers, we are tired, ingenious, and paranoid, among other things. Are we paranoid or are they after us, though? Toys for a boy on Flecainide scares me so much, I don't even want to ask the artist whether her son is, actually, on a drug for a life-threatening heart problem. The other day, I switched off a podcast story when a baby seemed about to die, something I would have prided myself on listening to, paying witness to, a year ago. I have always known that babies can die; I have loved a baby who died. But incubating and delivering and feeding my own baby, for whom no other mother is responsible, has made me physically vigilant. It felt like I wasn't reaching down to my phone and pushing stop, but that fate's hand was. I didn't think: It happened, it was done, and I was left to wonder whether I am weaker now that I apparently can't listen to a story.
For treatment for this and other disorders, I find Leavens's prescription of DIY psychotherapy wallpaper, only $500 per sq/ft just right. When she bitterly discovered that commercial wallpaper cost so much she'd have to make her own, she made this. It's a pattern of great big gold Rorschach blots on brown butcher paper. It's sarcastic, opulent, and ridiculous, some kind of madhouse luxe. You can imagine it in a photograph of the clever dining room of a high-end art collector featured in a glossy magazine like T of the New York Times ("Continuous Style Coverage").
Here in the gallery, the wallpaper is all bunched up at the bottom of the wall. The wall is crawling, watching, and diagnosing, like it did to all the other unhinged people who lived here, and the ones yet to come.