New York

“Dysfunction in the Family Album”

Diane Brown Gallery

Smile. Say “Cheese.” Look at the birdie. Grin and bear it. The photo opportunity family-style, replete with pseudo-voguish posturing, and misrepresentation of reality for the purpose of creating pleasant future memories, is the starting point for “Dysfunction in the Family Album,” a group show organized by painter David Humphrey. Beginning with the family photo, the eight artists included here take off in a multiplicity of directions reflecting both the transforming qualities of photographic processes and the power and influence of the family on the development of the individual. Artists such as Barbara Ess and Patty Martori dip into the fog of childhood, perception and memory, hinting at missed opportunities, things lost, or never quite possessed. This mix of romantic ideation with dashed hopes is also reflected in Sue Williams’ Love Mom, 1991, a painting with a preadolescent feel, presenting a starry-eyed, smiling, not-quite-real Mother, signed, “Love Mom,” at lower left like a movie-star head shot. Bonnie Lucas’ three impressive paintings take this idea further, reflecting both the fantasy and the reality of the roles available to women. Initially the paintings are quite repulsive—executed in the sickeningly sweet pastel-pinks and purples frequently used by children’s toy and clothing manufacturers for the purpose of pointing out, lest we forget, which toys and clothes are appropriate for girls; yet Lucas’ decision to gross us out with these colors, to force the viewer to plunge into them, works brilliantly. In paintings such as Big Flower, 1990, Lucas works with archetypical “female” imagery: in this case the flower petals become women, often headless, dressed in the costumes of standardized women’s roles—nurses, mothers, fairies, beauty contestants, etc. A woman’s head spills down into a spout and sprays/pees on/fertilizes a girl pushing a baby carriage. What Lucas does so well is tap into the dream and the nightmare of what it means to be born female, the desire and the pressure to become a girl in the “classic” sense.

Andrew Masullo’s work is perhaps angrier and less hopeful. Several of his pieces shown here deal with the death of the family or of the self in relation to the family. 1304, 1987, Masullo’s small, spliced-paper collage, in which bits of typed paper are pieced together, looks at just how one is identified by family members. Phrases are arranged in two columns under a heading that reads, “What I Was Called All Too Frequently”: “I. Daddy 1. Useless 2. Good For Nothing 3. Belligerent Bastard 4. You Make Me Vomit 5. No Common Sense II. Mother 1. Mother Fucking Cock-sucker.” Humphrey and Dennis Farber round out the show, presenting work that synthesizes and reinvents the concerns already outlined, recasting the elements into pieces that are not quite real, not quite surreal, but very much reflective of distortions the mind’s eye makes. Humphrey’s wonderful Mom, 1991, comes off as rich and somewhat scary, featuring the face of a young blond girl—reminiscent of Patty McCormick in The Bad Seed, 1956—before a bowl of alphabet soup, her eyes blue, intense, and slightly menacing. Coming up through the girl’s face—sharing aspects of her facial features—is the mother’s face (internalized) revealing the inescapable that lurks within.

Among the questions raised by the work presented here is one surrounding the concept of dysfunction—why do Americans, twelve-stepping their way toward this concept, act like Helen Keller spelling out the word “water,” as though we had only just learned to speak and found a name for what we know all too well? Have we not considered that perhaps there are no functional families, that the snapshot of the happy family, the one we model our poses from, is only a Madison Avenue construct, created in the postwar culture of affluence? Have we forgotten that the image and the expectations are tied to the recurring nightmare known as The American Dream—two cars, two kids, one big happy family—and that both are based on fantasy? The American family of the ’90s is no more or less dysfunctional than the American family of the ’20s. In part what these artists are presenting is a discussion of lost childhood as seen through a veil of dreams—all that I have lost played against the Hallmark card fantasy of what I might have become. They are acknowledging the disappointment, failure, and the recognition that what we have dreamed of will never come to pass.

A. M. Homes