Rasa Jansone, Families. Mummy Has a Hump. The Child’s Playing for Power. Daddy’s Protected by Someone. Cēsis Exhibition Hall from November 25th to December 31st.
When wandering among these large-format portraits – all of them so charged and full of tension that they seem ready to explode at any moment – it’s surprising to realise that the people depicted in them are very intimately linked via invisible threads that twine their fates together. And this thread is called family. But is this really family? Are these really cheerful dinners around the family table, porcelain dishes and a festive wedding portrait that we see here? Is it a heap of children’s snowsuits, a hearty pot of soup and the keys to a minivan? Even though the exhibition focuses on a study about specific families, the family ‘sets’ presented in the Cēsis Exhibition Hall are all jumbled up. Here, we see men and women of whom we only know one thing: whose children they are the parents of. We also see children, but do not know who their parents are.
Such an approach is most likely not an accident, because it allows the viewer to better recognise the issues that the artist is dealing with. It is not difficult to accept that a woman’s role as a mother is one of the most central roles in her identity and that her children are a sort of logical continuation of her own lifetime and space. So it is no surprise that this trilogy – for that is what the series of exhibitions Rasa Jansone has devoted to this theme can be called – began precisely with portraits of mothers in an exhibition called Barošanas migla (The Fog of Feeding, 2014). It focused on transformations within a woman’s consciousness, perception and her communication with the world in general, as she steps across the threshold into motherhood. The ‘contemporary Madonnas’ in these paintings were impetuous, confused, concentrated, astonished and, most importantly, they did not have any wonderfully calm or charming child in their laps. Considering that even today a mother’s role has been primarily linked with child-centred care and the satisfaction of her child’s every interest and need, often costing her a considerable amount, Jansone asked the following question: “If we took her child away, what would remain of the mother herself?”
Jansone’s next exhibition, however, was devoted to children. Yet, it would be impossible to call her portraits taken in the Sīkais (Little One, 2015) series ‘childish’. If the child’s presence was obviously felt in the mother’s subjectivity, then the children themselves seemed rather independent and self-sufficient. They played, challenged, seriously observed, contemplated, frolicked and chortled, and hid behind masks. These were small people already forging their lives ahead at full speed and, at least in front of the artist, they felt very free and unconstrained. In painting the children, Jansone successfully avoided two clichés of the genre: firstly, the pathetic line that ‘children are our future’, and secondly, commentary about the morality and virtues of society (degenerate, or at least questionable). Instead, her paintings make the viewer aware that children do not fall into any one category or character that determines the way in which we often perceive and think about childhood.
Now, finally, fathers join the exhibition in Cēsis. And what’s up with them? Jansone does not hide the fact that some of these men exhibited do not live together with their families. Still, others did not wish to be painted. But for those whose portraits are shown here, it seems that Jansone has – intentionally or not – given them a softer palette of colours, creating an easier and cosier impression. It seems as though the men are standing in a sunny field, as if to create a safe distance for themselves from the shadows that lurk in the darker clusters of trees, which are reflected so visibly in the eyes of the mothers. To what extent are children at the centre of these men’s worlds? To what extent do children guide their subjectivity? To what extent are children their greatest challenges? Jansone has included phrases written in chalk throughout all four rooms of the exhibition, which she heard while working with the models. Among them perhaps lies a hypothetical answer to these questions: “My son is in sixth, no, seventh grade. Better ask my wife.”
Maybe that’s an exaggeration, or just a coincidence. After all, Jansone’s exhibition is not a comprehensive sociological study about contemporary families in Latvia that must be based on strict and well-gathered empirical material. Jansone’s exhibition is art, and paradoxical at that, because on the one hand, it portrays real people with whom she has had conversations with and whose lives she has documented with great precision. On the other hand, her choice of medium – large-format paintings – and her expressive manner seems to contradict the exhibition’s claim to realism, because classic expressionism is linked to the artist’s subjectivity, exaggeration and emotional reaction, all of which lie far from tranquil observation and scientific study. But the key to the exhibition’s success in uniting both of these approaches can be found in the fact that it is impossible to talk about family dispassionately and coolly. Family is not an observation. The parameters of family cannot be expressed in objective measurements, for example, the number of children, a salary range or make of car. The contours of family are not subordinated to material reality or an itemised inventory; family cannot be quantified according to, say, containers of milk or orchids on the windowsill. Family is a dynamic, emotionally laden structure that takes place somewhere in the space between you and me, between a woman, man and child. In addition – and this is a very important point – the combinations thereof can be very diverse. The classic nuclear heterosexual family, which is still a very common prototype for family today, is gently being nudged aside to make room for other scenarios of living. One could assume that all that has remained unchanged, more or less, is the number of children ‘per head’, but even this assertion does not pass muster. Firstly, another child can always be born or adopted, and secondly, the number of children can swiftly change as families expand or are combined.
In other words, family has no strict boundaries and no stable, constant nucleus. Jansone’s exhibition documents fundamental changes in the formats of contemporary relationships, including forms that have been considered unnatural, incomplete or unsuccessful until recently (such as so-called ‘single mothers’, for example). Abandoning stereotypical views, Jansone’s work speaks about the many dimensions of motherhood, fatherhood and childhood, revealing fear, naiveté, bonding, infatuation, funny and moving rituals of being together. And, finally, the exhibition is also a good example of conceptual painting, which, is rare in Latvia’s art scene, but nevertheless a crucial phenomenon needed to maintain a healthy power of reasoning in this medium, crucial phenomenon for healthy power of reasoning.
Photography: Rasa Jansone