Samuels & Samuels
by Rebecca Gallo, August 2015
In the early 1990s, when Brenda Samuels became a mother, less than half of all new mothers were returning to the workforce. Brenda was amongst the majority in making motherhood her vocation, the home her workplace and the facilitation of family life her primary objective.
Last year, Brenda’s daughter Miranda Samuels graduated from art school, an environment that encourages the professionalisation of artistic practice and nurtures the cult of the young, emerging artist. Miranda’s interest in feminist discourse and institutional critique, and perhaps a sense of responsibility, caused her to look at her mother’s interrupted but promising artistic practice with new eyes.
The collaboration between Brenda Samuels and Miranda Samuels is an unusual take on a mother-daughter, artist-curator relationship. Their arrangement sees Miranda, daughter-as-curator, enabling the practice of Brenda, mother-as-artist. Miranda takes on her mother’s household chores for two days a week so that her mother can pursue a painting practice.
Beyond the usual managing of thematic and logistical elements of the exhibition, a vital part of Miranda’s curatorial strategy is to take on the tasks that would otherwise stop the artist from creating. The curator acts as a proxy for the artist, filling in the void left in the artist’s world when she disappears into her studio. Miranda’s regular affirmations of Brenda’s ability and potential are also driving factors that encourage the artist to keep making. Miranda is as much a patron, proxy and mentor as she is a curator. This is an interesting reversal of familial roles: where parents are generally their children’s patrons and mentors, enabling them to pursue their interests, here the daughter returns home to nurture a latent skill and desire in her mother.
Brenda Samuels, Powerade, 2015, oil on canvas. 30x30cm
This exhibition operates on two distinct registers: as an exhibition of paintings, and as a conceptual work of art.
1. An exhibition of paintings. These small-scale, square-format paintings are portraits of individual mass-produced items, painted on grounds of horizontally split colour. They are items one finds on supermarket shelves: a tin of tuna, a pump pack of moisturiser, a jar of pickles, a bottle of Coke. By isolating each item, the artist draws our attention to the design and form of the packaging. There is a dissonance between the fleeting attention usually afforded disposable commercial products, and the loving, careful treatment with which they are painted here. These are items designed to get our attention quickly, and then to be discarded as soon as their contents are finished. In the case of the takeaway coffee cup, this entire process is complete within a matter of minutes from purchase.
These paintings tap into the mechanisms of desire production that drive our consumerist society. The artist does not berate us for our weakness or campaign for us to do things differently, but her paintings do prompt awareness: awareness of design and pattern, of gender and age-specific messages, and of waste. Why make something so beautiful – so complex a matrix of design, colour, shape, typography, paper, ink – when it is destined to be thrown away? Our desire, it seems, is as impermanent and superficial as the printed labels we are attracted to.
2. A conceptual work of art. Paintings by Mum is the presentation of the results of a transaction and a collaborative practice; the exhibition both presents the findings of the collaborative experiment, and is a work of art in itself. The whole process, from the decision and application to exhibit at AirSpace Projects, the scale and number of works, the composition of a media release, the Facebook event and social media promotion, the hanging, the opening night, to this essay: all of these things are calculated elements of an experimental collaboration between artist and curator, mother and daughter, she who makes and she who makes happen. Of course, these logistical and promotional activities are a vital part of most exhibitions. But in this case, the machinations of exhibition production are foregrounded. This exhibition is a self-conscious entity, calculated to exhibit both a series of paintings and an unusual collaborative working process.
Brenda and Miranda’s collaboration touches on a number of complex social and theoretical issues. Mostly under the umbrella of feminism, these include notions of women’s work, in particular the 1970s Wages for Housework Campaign, which demanded remuneration for domestic chores and childcare; the notion of affective labour, or work that provides emotional as well as tangible benefit; family politics, in particular patriarchal family structures; parental role reversal; the limits and nature of curatorial strategy; re-skilling for the contemporary professional world; the depiction of the domestic realm by women artists; ageism and sexism. This collaboration is an intriguing and complex work in progress, conscious of its own pitfalls, strengths, contradictions and potentials.
‘Paintings by Mum’, installation view, Airspace Projects, 2015. Exhibition by Brenda Samuels, curated by Miranda Samuels
Brenda and Miranda are operating in an art world that favours the new and young and unattached, but by being upfront about age, gender and life experience, they pose earnest questions of their audience: are you able to evaluate these paintings on their own merit? Is your perception of art affected by your knowledge of who made it? Can an emerging, middle-aged female artist be as promising and successful as her young male counterpart? These questions have the potential to reveal unconscious pre-judgements in even the most liberal-minded viewer. After all, we are all products of our experiences and surroundings, a fact which Brenda and Miranda, mother and daughter, artist and curator, reiterate and challenge in turn.
Press for ‘Paintings by Mum’ - The Art Life website
The show runs until August 22nd 2015 at Airspace Projects in Marrickville