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 and 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 scrappy 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 usually expressed as an idyll. "She's never, you know, punishing the Christ child," says Jean Sorabella, in an online tour of maternity art produced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The title of Leavens's show is Mother//Hood, and those slashes are important. The show is as much about change, about crossing over something, as about simply being a mother. Change in this art is disruptive, disconcerting, and everywhere: on Leavens's body, in Leavens's South Seattle neighborhood, in the transition of the old house she and her husband bought passing 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 wonders about the fate of where she lives, and about 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 gray 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 no-nonsense dignity. (Think of this compared to another cartoon representation of breasts: the word "hooters." Try maintaining an iota of dignity while 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, plenty of babies thrive on the more recently invented substitute breast milk (its weird name: "formula"), but the presence or absence of the original technology (i.e., breast milk) still means life or death for plenty of 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 congeal into one, and one that has to appear G-rated for the next decade—that there is terribleness biting at the edges of Leavens's show.
Winchester bullets she found in the house's attic are displayed in a vitrine, paired with a fictional "found" letter (that she wrote) from the perspective of a man whose wife left him with their child. He's saving two bullets for her if she ever comes back. Both sides are horrible: that he will kill her, that she had to leave.
Maybe the most terrible truth I detect underlying the art is that while parenthood involves snuggling and cuteness, it also produces a spike in your general fear level 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 Flecainidescares 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 knownthat 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 didn't feel like I was the one 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.
For treatment for this and other disorders, I find Leavens's prescription of DIY psychotherapy wallpaper, only $500 per sq/ftjust right. When she bitterly discovered that commercial wallpaper costs so much that she'd have to make her own, she fashioned this. It's a pattern of great big gold Rorschach blots on brown butcher paper. It's sarcastic, opulent, and ridiculous: madhouse luxe. You could imagine it in a glossy magazine featuring the clever home of a high-end art collector.
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.