When artist Tim Roda's 10-year-old son, Ethan, and his wife, Allison, enter his studio in Harlem, they are unaware what Tim is planning for them. What they see is a table, a bottle of wine, a crucifix, salvaged wood propped up against the wall, and a lamp. In the middle is a clearing.
Ethan has just come from school, so there is a snack with juice. Finally, Allison takes her usual place behind the Super 8 camera while Ethan awaits instructions from his father, who is already dressed up as an old, unattractive, heavily made-up Italian woman. As Tim sits down in front of a makeshift vanity, he tells Ethan to stare off in the opposite direction and dance—the film will be silent, and Ethan will "play" the part of the music. "Feel the music," Tim says, putting on some movie soundtrack. There is no rehearsal; Ethan begins to dance, Tim says okay, and Allison starts filming.
Tim aggressively plucks stray eyebrows and chin hairs while, behind him, Ethan dances, shirtless. Ethan looks at his father only once, briefly, fueled by the genuine curiosity of seeing his father dressed as a woman and manicuring himself. His short break in character is an honest moment that allows the relationship between father and son to break through the art facade. After three minutes of dancing and plucking—when the film runs out—the art is over. Ethan is allowed to play. Watching Ethan tear down sets and jump on tables in the studio is what inspired Tim to begin making Super 8s in the first place.
An artist's studio is a sacred space. Conventionally it is where the isolated genius, holed up, performs the physical action of creating art. But occasionally—very occasionally—it is also a jungle gym, and the place for an after-school snack.
The most famous examples of artists picturing children bear traces of darkness, whether sexual, violent, or otherwise. Lewis Carroll's 19th-century child photographs can be seen as lewd; Ralph Eugene Meatyard in the 20th century photographed his children in graveyards and dilapidated houses in rural Kentucky (settings parents encourage their children to stay away from); and most recently, Sally Mann has been criticized for exposing her own children in intimate portraits.
How much do children understand of the artistic process? Does it matter? Parenting is a litany of dos and don'ts to help direct children through life. Is it that much different directing them through a photo shoot?
Tim Roda, a former Seattle artist (and represented by Greg Kucera Gallery, where the dancing-and-plucking video was recently shown) now based in New York, ups the ante by joining his own child in front of the camera. He uses his family life in surreal, detailed scenes that are so specific to his own psychology and history, it's hard to follow his narrative. This is where Ethan comes in, as a link between artist and viewer. Like the viewer, he doesn't know quite how to interpret what's happening.
Unlike the viewer, though, Ethan changes. He grows up. In early photographs, he appears to be reacting, often as if he's unsure or afraid, to the emotionally charged sets. He grows more independent in the videos, acting as a character. (He still doesn't understand what they're doing because in art class at school, he's taught that art is making real-looking drawings.) One wonders what will happen in the videos and photographs when Ethan hits his teenage years. Roda's work can't help but incorporate the fascinating, mutating chaos of the family itself.
Seattle artist Zack Bent makes photographs of his whole family, too. He's only been doing it about a year, and this month, he's been immersed in it. For a residency at Crawl Space, he lived in the gallery for a full week, and for three of those days his entire family joined him—his wife, Gala, 3-year-old son, Ezra (who was forced to postpone his birthday because he was in the gallery on it!), and 1-year-old Solomon.
The resulting show, up through July 6, is called Home on the Range, a title Bent chose beforehand, when he got interested in a book about Daniel Boone. He decided to examine his own family's journey out west from Indiana to Seattle, using the family's survival of confinement to the gallery as a metaphor for survival in the wilderness.
A few days into his residency, Bent was working productively in the gallery, building a modern-day covered wagon. Then the kids came. All the objects in the gallery were elevated and the table corners were taped off: the place had been kid-proofed. Bent estimated he was now working at about one-eighth his independent speed. He planned to make a show of sculptures and videos, capturing the kids playacting in costume, or in the dark, or describing what it was like when, outside the gallery, they found a dead animal.
Bent's agenda is vague compared to Roda's. At times, even he is unsure of exactly what he's trying to get at, of where the realms of the real and the fantasy are supposed to meet.
Because the final image is less concrete in Bent's mind, he is more influenced by the inclusion of his family. In order to get more consistent results, in earlier photographs he resorted to creating settings that would hold the attention of his young sons: a pile of laundry, a stack of yellow paper, a big blue birthday cake. These domestic images border on being more interesting to the father than the viewer.
Bent's residency exhibition at Crawl Space, which opened June 21, is a step toward clarifying the intent of his work. Three looped videos play on a TV inside a quilted covered wagon with handcrafted wheels. The kids and their father are dressed in old lumberjack costumes with contemporary details (REI vests, Croc sandals). In the silent video Rope Man, the kids are pictured alone together, engaged in a type of oblivious play that acts as a metaphor for the amoral pioneer spirit. Compared to the earlier photographs, these videos are both more real and more contrived, more candid and more edited—and richer.