Birth is a rare motif in art, especially explicit depictions. An interview with queer feminist artist Clarity Haynes, who challenges conventions of femininity, gender and sexuality.
In part three of our series on motherhood, we chatted with queer feminist writer and artist Clarity Haynes. This series accompanying our comprehensive retrospective of the work of Paula Modersohn-Becker also includes interviews with Hannah Cooke, Najja Moore, Lenka Clayton, and Laxmi Hussain.
For Haynes, the surface of the body is a landscape or a map with moles, veins, scars, and wrinkles as landmarks of life. In her paintings she focuses on queer, trans, cis female, and nonbinary bodies, pushing social norms of beauty, femininity, gender, and sexuality.
Clarity, could you tell us a bit about your piece “Birth Altar, 2020-21” and your art practice in general?
“Birth Altar, 2020-21” is part of my Altars series: trompe l’oeil paintings of queer feminist altars I create in my studio. My interest in the subject of birth began during the pandemic. During quarantine, my beloved Granny died of Covid at a nursing home far away in Texas. I was grieving, thinking about life, death, and my maternal lineage. I also found myself drawn to looking at photographs and videos of birth on Instagram. The Instagram birth community first came to my attention because they have battled the censorship of women’s bodies online, just as I have with my “Breast Portrait Project” (1998-present). To give you a sense of the “Breast Portrait Project”, which also relates to the topic of motherhood: for many years, my practice centered on the torso as a site for portraiture. These are closely cropped paintings that do not include the face, and which focus on trauma, healing, and celebration. The project is centered in queer and feminist communities, and includes cis women, trans men, and nonbinary people as sitters/participants.
To return to the birth painting, “Birth Altar, 2020-21” includes several depictions of birth photographs I found online, as well as artworks by well-known feminist artists who have influenced me. I would say that the painting is in part an homage to my artistic mothers. There is an Ana Mendieta earthwork, a Judy Chicago dinner plate, and an early Louise Bourgeois drawing in which the figure is giving birth through their mouth! There is also a purple-patterned Butterfly Mask, designed for protection from Covid by Judy Chicago in 2020. The monumental heart shape of this painting is a tribute to Miriam Schapiro, whose large, flowery patterned hearts I have always loved. The pink color is fleshy — I think of the heart, too, as a kind of vulva. This subject of birth arose for me during the pandemic because, with all of the death happening on a global scale, I was moved to consider birth as its flip side. Like death, birth is intense, scary, messy, and exists in a space outside of the quotidian every day. Both birth and death can also be beautiful, emotional, transformative, and sacred.
It’s fascinating to hear about all the female influences for “Birth Altar 2020-21”. How does motherhood as a topic influence your work?
As a queer cis woman who has never given birth, birthing bodies remind me first and foremost of the fact that I have a mother. That I had a birth. People often assume that my perspective is that of a mother, but in fact I think my identification with birth imagery is more from the perspective of the baby! Also, bodies that can give birth – whether or not they belong to people who identify as women – are the bodies with which I have been intimately, erotically, and romantically involved. It’s amazing to me that pregnant bodies house two or more souls, subjectivities, at once. The philosophy of the body, which has been primarily formed by cis men, is turned on its head when you consider the experience of birthing people. And the way that the vagina and vulva change form so dramatically during birth – protruding from the body as the head emerges, in a way that is almost phallic – fascinates me.
Very interesting, I don’t think I’ve ever heard it phrased that way. Paula Modersohn-Becker was one of the first artists that systematically explored the motif of motherhood, painting pregnancy as well as mothers and children at the turn of the twentieth century. Is motherhood – getting pregnant, giving birth, having children – still a taboo topic in the arts today?
I think in some ways the topic is central to the history of art — but only as it has been romanticized by cis male artists who equated womanhood with motherhood. Paula Modersohn-Becker was different because she was a woman painting these themes, and she was doing it in a way that it had never been done before. I think the topic is not generally taboo today, unless it is being done in a new way — from a birthing person’s point of view, or depicting birth with honesty and realism, or presenting birth in a way that challenges the gender binary.
Agreed! I think especially the realistic depiction of giving birth still holds a lot of power. Do you have a personal connection to Paula Modersohn-Becker and her work?
In 2011 I had the honor of organizing a panel with art historian Beth Gersh-Nesic in conjunction with the College Art Association conference. It was titled “The Feminist Breast: Women, Nudity and Portraiture,” and one of the panelists was the esteemed art historian Diane Radycki, who has since written the important book, Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Modern Woman Artist (Yale University Press). Radycki’s presentation on Paula Modersohn-Becker and the maternal nude blew my mind. Her theory is that in the history of art, the female nude has been extremely popular, as a kind of sexualized cis male fantasy. By contrast, the mother figure, also a popular subject, has been depicted as mostly clothed, and very chaste. Even the nursing Virgin Mary was only ever depicted with one breast exposed, not both. But Modersohn-Becker was revolutionary, because she was the first to paint the mother figure completely nude. She challenged cis male psychology by fusing the “mother” archetype together with the “sexual nude woman” archetype, resulting in a disturbance to cis male psychology, the shocking taboo of: “Mother, nude!”
Hah, yes, the combination of these two “worlds” might be hard to stomach for some. Has including motifs of motherhood changed the art world’s perspective of you as an artist?
Motherhood motifs are right in line with what I’ve been engaged with for years. The Breast Portrait Project relates to the maternal nude in a different way. In this series of torso portraits, which includes many large-scale paintings and drawings, the painted figure is often much larger than life. When standing in front of the painting, then, the viewer becomes like a child in relation to the larger figure of the maternal body.
Thank you, Clarity, for these super interesting glimpses into your work! One last question: When you think of motherhood in the arts who comes to mind, any artists you would like to give a shoutout to or that inspired you?
Frida Kahlo’s incredible, bloody “My Birth” (1932) is one of the few realistic paintings of crowning that I’m aware of in art history. And of course, there is “L’Origine du Monde” (1866) by Gustave Courbet, which implies birth, without depicting it. And Mickalene Thomas’ fabulous, sparkling “Origin of the Universe” (2012).
I’ve also been inspired by contemporary artists Heji Shin, Carmen Winant, and Loie Hollowell; Betty Tompkins’ monumental paintings of vulvas, derived from porn; and cis male queer and nonbinary artists like Louis Fratino and Jonathan Lyndon Chase, who imagine birthing bodies outside of the gender binary. Louis Fratino’s fantasy of male birth, “I keep my treasure in my ass”, is both visceral and conceptual.
PS: Some time after the interview, Clarity discovered the 2007 Dana Schutz painting, “How We Would Give Birth.” Which is bloody and messy and definitely deserves a mention!