Barbara Weissberger: Mother — J Houston


Barbara Weissberger: Mother — J Houston

I first saw Barbara Weissberger’s Mother at Silver Eye Center for Photography in early February. The gallery was full with images at varied sizes, hanging at different heights, broken up by soft sculptures in bodily forms reminiscent of those in the images. Barbara Weissberger’s work fabricates bodies (or parts of bodies), and it’s hard to separate the body from medicine right now. In the time leading up to Mother, she could not have made the work with the pandemic in mind, but rather, our collective situation has begun to expose more publicly the ways medical environments and interpersonal relationships handle bodies that deviate from a mythical norm.

Weissberger’s playfulness with materials that have multiple uses and connotations creates several narratives that can morph and overlap with a first, second, third viewing of the work. In Navel, blue thread weaves up through a beige sheet-like fabric towards another stitched hole with a belly button peeking out. It’s easy to immediately think of sewing as a reference to “women’s work” in the context of motherhood, but the messiness of the stitching, tactically useless, forces us beyond that. Are the stitches a reference to medical interventions in birthing, or again too obvious? A subtle seam, cleanly sewn cuts across the bottom of the frame through the blue knotting, all referencing a possible procedure or intervention. ‘Navel’ itself is the technical medical term for the belly button, a spot that is rarely discussed in serious tones. But at first glance? A laugh about the belly button peeking through the peephole. Weissberger marries these conflicted readings, some funny, some violent.

While the work is very much about an artist’s experimentation, my favorite images are the ones like Navel; they don’t reveal a specific placement in the studio, allowing us to imagine more freely what’s beyond the frame. Alter-hand has this placelessness that continues the contrast between fantasy play and murky consent. A canvas-looking material (reminiscent of uniform, dystopia, or just unfinished) forms a glove, and I’m brought to cartoons by the concentric circles oscillating outwards and the doll-like arm extending from the glove. This piece immediately reminds me of one of the stranger aspects of the pandemic: the dark humor of the misguided personal protective equipment (PPE) individuals are making in the face of a lack of standardized medical options. Fantasy gives us agency, and in a global situation where there feels like less options than usual, it is a means of surviving and moving through.

Even more than raw canvas, materials such as cardboard, foil, unhemmed fabrics, wood, and paper show up again and again across images. Alongside caricatures of extremities, the obviousness of these materials gives an immediate entry point into the work. The materials are earnest in a way that makes the work feel self-aware of its inability to fully portray the body. Within the work, there are also several sculptural elements; what does it mean to talk about the images without these objects, on this digital platform? Instead of feeling the soft squish of Weissberger’s sculptures, we’re left with an image to imagine what the materials feel like, something which may be particularly possible due to the familiarity of the materials.

Text can translate this additional information during a time when physical space can’t, and Weissberger pairs an Ocean Vuong quote from the novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, framed as an extended narrative letter to the author’s mother, with her work. “I am writing to you from a body that used to be yours. That is to say, I am writing to you as a son”. The cyclical nature of giving birth ties reflects the iterative processes and bodily shapes in the work, giving a possible meaning to the word ‘mother’ in an otherwise open-ended inquiry.

I wanted to write about Mother pre-pandemic, and now, I can’t stop thinking about the relationship of the work to our new collective experience of illness. As I re-read Vuong’s novel last week, another moment reminded me of Weissberger’s work.

“I never wanted to build a “body of work” but to preserve these, our bodies, breathing and
unaccounted for, inside the work. Take it or leave it. The body, I mean.”

Barbara Weissberger’s work is shown at such venues as The Drawing Center, White Columns, PS1/MoMA, Gridspace (Brooklyn), Photoville (Brooklyn), and Hallwalls (Buffalo) in New York; Coop Gallery, Nashville; Big Medium, Austin; The Mattress Factroy, SPACE Gallery and the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Pittsburgh; GRIN (Aldrich + Weissberger), Providence, RI; Artspace New Haven, Connecticut; ADA Gallery, Richmond, VA; and The Holter Museum of Art , Montana.

She was a participant in The Drawing Center’s inaugural Open Sessions, and a Guggenheim Fellow. Residencies include Yaddo, MacDowell Colony, Camargo Foundation (France), Ucross, Ragdale, Hambidge Center, The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Montana Artists Refuge. In addition she makes collaborative installations with the artist Eleanor Aldrich.

Play is central to her process; images grow out of improvisation and the pleasure of working with materials. The writer Sherrie Flick described the idiosyncratic mix of elements in her work as “stacked and wrapped — harmoniously, improbably, united in their disparity.”

J Houston

Is an artist & photographer working in Brooklyn, NY & sometimes Pittsburgh, PA.

Image Titles | (1) Alter-hand, (2) Suspended Blue, (3) Physical Comedy, (4) Hairy Frog Eye, (5) More Fragile But More Enduring, (6) A Tat, A Snag (sant’Agata), (7) Navel, (8) Improbable Body, (9) Your Eye So Close, (10) Memory of a Place You’ve Never Been, (11) Alter-foot, (12) Elephant

Images 1, 7, and 11 taken by Ivette Spradlin, all other images courtesy of the artist. You can view more of Barbara Weissberger’s work at her website and a virtual conversation around Mother at Silver Eye Center for Photography’s website.