Families are the stuff of great stories, both fictional and real, from Lear and the Sopranos to the Hapsburgs and Kennedys. We are all experts on the subject, whether our expertise lies in trying to escape family—with its dynamics of guilt, manipulation, and other dysfunctions—or working to create or re-create one. Group shows are yet another kind of familial collective, and the Aldrich Museum (a former house, appropriately enough) took on this unwieldy matter in “Family,” bringing together a clan of thirty-seven artists who have made works that consider the institution in its many mutable forms: tribal, professional, religious, racial, alternative, and old-fashioned nuclear.

Offspring was a preoccupation in the exhibition. Tapping reproductive anxieties (and pushing the envelope of good taste) was Chrissy Caviar, 2001–2002. For this Bad Girl art in the age of in vitro piece, artist Chrissy Conant harvested twelve of her eggs and sealed them in small vials. The containers were then packaged into jars with labels announcing their weight and ingredients alongside an image of the artist in sexy attire. Presented as a delicacy available in limited quantity for consumption only by those who can afford it, the piece jabbed at both the egg-selling racket and the art market. Similarly provocative, video artist Maria Marshall, who often uses her children as subjects (a much discussed 1999 digitally manipulated image by the artist shows her two-year-old son taking a drag from a cigarette), opened afresh the old Sally Mann debate about objectifying young bodies and emotions. President Bill Clinton, Memphis, Tennessee, November 13, 1993, 2000, depicts one of Marshall's boys reading a speech by the former president espousing loving parental structures. His too-young voice highlights the artificiality of the words.

Maternal power seemed to dominate, as milk, the über-domestic beverage, flowed liberally. For example, Nan Goldin's tableau of twenty-four photographs portraying women before and after pregnancy was replete with swollen breasts and nursing babies. The perils that beset families of two, on the other hand, were painfully laid bare in Sophie Calle's Autobiographies (The Rival), 1992, which includes the text of a love letter Calle discovered her husband had written to another woman. In a wrenching, ineffectual way of reclaiming her husband and excising his lover, Calle edited out the woman's initial, replacing it with her own.

With so subjective a theme, “Family” was understandably broad, but even so a few selections were stretches. Among them, Nicole Eisenman's Hunting, 2000, depicted a “tribe” of women in snow gear sneaking up on two men whose helicopter has crashed in frozen arctic territory—providing, the wall text proposes, an example of an “alternative family structure.” Works driven by personal narratives were better, including a new piece by Sanford Biggers in which Super-8 home Movies of the artist's family at birthday parties, meals, and other gatherings were projected inside a small barnlike shed. Installed high in a tree in the museum's sculpture lawn and decorated on one side with glass bottles, the sculpture evoked southern vernacular traditions while nodding to the African tradition of creating altars in caves or trees in memory of the dead. Called Racine de Mémoire (Root of memory), Biggers's piece seemed the perfect metaphor: The family may turn your world upside down or be a safe haven of unconditional acceptance, but it is always an almost palpable receptacle for memory and self.

Meghan Dailey