Hammer Projects: Desirée Holman
Desirée Holman makes figurative props or effigies which she manipulates in role-play games that then take the form of drawings, sculpture, photography and video. For this exhibition, Holman presents her new project, Reborn, which questions the notion of "maternal instincts." Inspired by a subculture of women (mostly in the U.S. and Great Britain) who purchase incredibly life-like baby dolls and bathe and feed them as they would a real infant, Holman extensively researched this community and painstakingly hand-crafted several of her own "reborns." The project also includes Mary Cassatt-inspired color pencil drawings of mothers and their babies and a video featuring several women interacting with the babies in a variety of unconventional scenarios. Holman’s work seamlessly brings together elements of fiction, fantasy, pop culture, anthropology and simulation, as she lures viewers into her games of make-believe.
This exhibition is organized by Hammer curator Ali Subotnick.
Desirée Holman was born in 1974 in Montgomery, Alabama, and lives and works in Oakland, California. Her work has been exhibited internationally at venues including the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art, São Paulo, Brazil; the Hessel Museum of Art at the Bard Center for Curatorial Studies, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Machine Project, Los Angeles; YYZ Artists’ Outlet, Toronto; and the Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley, California. Holman was awarded a SECA Art Award from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2008, and in 2007 she received the Artadia: The Fund for Art and Dialogue award. She received her BFA from California College of the Arts, Oakland, and her MFA from the University of California, Berkeley, and she attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Her work has been reviewed in publications such as Artforum, the Los Angeles Times, NY Arts, Artillery, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Artweek. This is her first solo museum exhibition.
By Franklin Melendez
A tidbit of outmoded child psychology may shed some light on the strange and unsettling world of Desirée Holman’s Reborn project (2009). In a 1951 case study, the British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott examined the peculiar attachment young children develop to inanimate objects (the beloved “blanky,” the treasured teddy bear, a favored doll, or any number of equally arbitrary but infinitely valued toys). Like a good Freudian, Winnicott interpreted this charged affective investment as the first inkling of a process of individuation through which children come to develop a sense of themselves in the world. He even went so far as to develop his own branch of the discipline around these “transitional objects,” as he termed them, which functioned as the first props for the most rudimentary creative gestures, ushering (if not seducing) the child into the realm of fantasy and play and, ultimately, into the social domain.1
Always drawn to foundational moments, Holman used this bit of theoretical trivia as her point of entry into the curious subculture of women called “reborners,” who handcraft and care for hyperrealistic baby dolls, achieving a degree of verisimilitude verging on the obsessive. Plump rolls of baby fat are lovingly sculpted and painted, eyelashes and hairs applied individually with surgical precision, breathing apparatuses cleverly devised and installed to create a perfect bundle of joy that is reared like a Fabergé egg in diapers. Tickled by this unsettling of Winnicott’s formula (who or what exactly is the transitional object here?), Holman immersed herself in the culture, accumulating exhaustive research materials, interviewing numerous women (American, mostly midwestern, and many of them well-adjusted actual mothers), and eventually learning their craft and codified practices (many of the “reborns” have their own nurseries and scrapbooks alongside those of the rest of the family). The experience ultimately yielded Holman’s own litter of reborns (some rendered with artistic license, such as a conjoined twin and an especially large baby), which serve as the main props for a suite of drawings and a three-channel video installation that collectively explore the cultural (and sculptural) implications of this maternal impulse played out through synthetic surrogates.
It may be tempting to read a biographical subtext into this body of work. And certainly Reborn integrates numerous postfeminist anxieties surrounding persistent notions of domesticity, the family, and biological destiny, to name just a few. These issues play out spectacularly in the video that is part of the project, also titled Reborn—in which cheeky close-ups of gyrating pelvises, choreographed dance numbers in Day-Glo burkas, and the compulsive parlor games of musical chairs and newborn hot potato are syncopated to the beat of a ticking biological clock—and in her hauntingly rendered drawings, with their echoes of Mary Cassatt and the Pietà, presenting a dystopic vision of placid Stepford wives becoming drooling Stepford mamas. And yet something happens to these images in their reiteration; they are flattened, made almost absurd by their incessant performance. For instance, the seemingly straightforward image of women balancing a “baby” against a stack of books is undermined by the fact that it is a two-headed baby. Moments like these broaden the scope of the work, suggesting that Holman is engaging these issues less as sources of personal anxiety and more as deeply rooted cultural tropes.
In this sense, Reborn is emblematic of Holman’s artistic practice, which is difficult to pin to a particular medium but is invariably characterized by a pointed anthropological thrust. Trained in sculpture, Holman uses objects as a point of departure, moving through research, performance, video, digital manipulation, drawing, and installation. With these disparate gestures, she advances a common purpose: excavating the myths (or mythèmes, to borrow Claude Lévi-Strauss’s term) that structure our experience of the social world. We can see this in earlier works such as Troglodyte (2005), in which a band of precocious primates dance their way through big questions like the origins of culture, the inception of technology, and the roots of the family, along the way exploring ideas of aesthetic rapture, animism, reciprocal altruism, and the primal horde. In The Magic Window (2007), Holman restages two seminal sitcoms of the early 1990s, Roseanne and The Cosby Show, using makeshift masks that are routinely likened to those worn by the character Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The ensuing pantomime (with or without the horror-flick implications) mines the processes by which ideologies of race, class, and privilege are embedded into familial structures and propagated by the benign fictions of the magic window (a sign reading “Families Are Forever” flashes conspicuously in one frame).
But it is important to note that “critique” may not quite capture the mood of Holman’s investigations, which are invariably fascinated by the object of scrutiny. If anything, there is an unabashed sympathy running throughout, a benevolent unraveling of cultural structures and references that yields to an unstable space of fantasy and play. Reborn takes shape within this ethos, mischievously juxtaposing idioms of the maternal with obsolete traces of child psychology and scraps of popular culture. Combining images of mother and child; overhead shots of tract housing; and bits of Melanie Klein, Sigmund Freud, and Julia Kristeva, Holman explores the currency of the spectacle of fertility, an ur-structure that’s propagated by the popular imagination, from the film Rosemary’s Baby to the real-life Octomom. The recurring images of mothers drooling milk may speak less to lingering biological imperatives than to our inexplicable fascination with the latest celebrity pregnancy splashed all over the tabloids—an impulse that will invariably make us pause at the checkout stand and bask in its garish glory.
In this sense, Reborn is allied with the work of contemporaries such as Ryan Trecartin and Christian Jankowski, who are equally intrigued by structures of cultural dissemination (from television and the Internet to the evangelical pulpit). If Reborn is Holman’s most personal work, it is only in the sense that it is her most formally reflexive. The video and drawings subtly imbricate discourses of the maternal with those of aesthetic production. Gestation speaks both to biological reproduction and aesthetic process. Ultimately Reborn unfolds as an intimate meditation on the parameters of Holman’s work, which is fundamentally about process, itself a type of working through (but without the psychoanalytic baggage). The prop takes on particular significance here, both in the sense of her material practice (her sculptures are conceived and manufactured as precisely that: props) and the imaginative space that they yield. In an unexpected way, Reborn takes up the legacy of performance and body art and its contentious relation to the art object. The seeping liquid can’t help but evoke the artifice of abjection and the productive deformations in the work of Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley, and Cindy Sherman. We could even say that Holman explores the uncanny persistence of the art object through idioms of the maternal—but that might be going too far. Instead, we’ll settle for noting that she bypasses this art historical conundrum by simply attesting to the import of imaginary play, which is ever pregnant with possibilities.
Franklin Melendez is a writer and independent curator based on the West Coast. He is currently working on special projects for the Berkeley Art Museum and developing the arts and culture magazine Archive.
1. D. W. Winnicott, “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena,” reprinted in Playing and Reality (London: Tavistock, 1971).
Hammer Projects is made possible with major gifts from Susan Bay Nimoy and Leonard Nimoy and The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation.
Additional generous support is provided by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, Good Works Foundation and Laura Donnelley, L A Art House Foundation, the Department of Cultural Affairs, City of Los Angeles, the David Teiger Curatorial Travel Fund, and Fox Entertainment Group’s Arts Development Fee.