Mother-Son Art Takes on the Ties That Bind
You won't find signs of umbilical discord at the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, where a mother and child reunion explores stories of family life through photography, video, and folk wisdom.
"Progeny" pairs Deborah Willis and her son, Hank Willis Thomas, in their first official collaboration. The result is a seamless exhibit that gives the impression both artists have often worked together before.
Willis is a photographer, educator, and curator. Thomas has become known for his stinging critique of advertising and its impact on contemporary life.
"A lot of my work is influenced by my mother," Thomas says. "It was only natural we would engage in a project where that became clear."
Thomas drives the point home in Sometimes I See Myself in You, a digital c-print framing his face on the left and his mother's on the right. In the middle, their images fuse in a nod of filial respect.
Their project began germinating two years ago, when Steinbaum proposed the idea of a collaborative effort. The gallerist explains she was intrigued by the notion that the art gene could be passed from generation to generation.
"I have admired Deb's work for a long time and watched her develop from her books to photographs to speaker to her selection for a MacArthur genius award," Steinbaum says. "I've known Hank since he was 12 years old and watched him go off to study art, and now as a rising art star. What's curious to me is how many of their relatives have also turned out to be art historians and curators as well."
At the entrance of the gallery, 12 digital c-prints slice across the entire length of a wall. Both mother and son worked on the Words to Live By series, which depicts close-up images of ethnically diverse men's and women's lips, with phrases printed in white on a black band running below the subjects' chins.
"Success is always getting what you want, but happiness is wanting what you get," one fragment reads. Another pearl asserts, "The person who knows how will always have a job. The person who knows why will always be the boss."
While Willis is based in New York City and Thomas in San Francisco, distance never became an obstacle in conceptualizing their show. In fact both artists agree that symbiotic coincidences might have been at play.
"The synchronicity was strange," Willis recalls. "I had been collecting words and phrases from people to use as the text elements in the show. What I found fascinating was that independently, Hank had been doing the same."
Thomas explains that some of the images and thoughts were inspired by the murder of his cousin, Songha Thomas Willis, during a robbery outside a club in Philadelphia.
"It's about how people are affected by life and death. It reminds me of some of the phrases my mom would tell me and my cousin when we were growing up," he recollects. "It was the same advice she probably received herself earlier and imparted to us, but we didn't necessarily follow either."
A profound sense of communal oral history is evident throughout the space. It is captured poignantly in My Birth/Your Birth, a DVD looped on two flat-screen monitors.
"One of the things I was taken with is how we see ourselves and how we relate to our parents," Thomas says. "The most important moment of our lives is when we are born, but those memories are often mediated by others."
In one video, people relate stories of how they entered life; in the other, parents recall the birth of their children. The subjects are filmed in a tight closeup focusing solely on their mouths as they are speaking. The voices on opposite screens bleed into each other, creating a disjointed narrative.
A man laments how his head was lodged against his mother's pelvis, causing him to come "out crooked from her vagina." He goes on to say that as a newborn, he looked like the Elephant Man. When he was placed with other babies in a hospital viewing room, the subject says, his father was so ashamed of him "he pointed to an Asian baby as his own."
On the other screen, a black woman says, "It was sweet. You were all hands and feet; that's what I remember."
In the video, Thomas also speaks about his own birth, and his mother about his delivery.
Willis says what struck her most about her son's video piece is its healing nature. "I felt there was a lot of pain in it, and that by listening to the narrative of the younger generation, it shows how pain is transferred by parents."
Steinbaum muses that for her, the most remarkable aspect of the show was the role reversal between Willis and Thomas. "While they were working together, the parent became the child and the child became the parent," she says.
One of the most memorable pieces is Willis's Hank Pending, a blown-up image from an old photo contact sheet. In one shot, the artist, draped in a nightgown, cradles her unborn child; in another, she faces the camera nude with her hands casually thrown back.
"It was great to work in the studio with her," Thomas says. "She photographed me and I photographed her. It's fun to have a reason to work with your mom."
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