Maximalism and the Postmaternal
In this two-part dialogue, spanning contemporary feminist theory to modernist art criticism, independent curator Adam Barbu and interdisciplinary artist Natalie Bruvels reflect on the relationship between maternal caregiving and collaborative authorship. Specifically, they discuss the recent exhibition Walk in the Park (2023) created by Cat Attack Collective, an artist duo consisting of Bruvels and her 11-year-old son Tomson. Walk in the Park transforms the white cube Ottawa City Hall Art Gallery into an expansive environment that blurs the line between the surreal and the everyday. Building from the prior exhibition Abound (2022), presented at the Ottawa Art Gallery, the installation incorporates co-created paintings and sculptures of recycled, accessible materials that intersect and overspill. In the exchanges that follow, through considerations of accumulation, refiguration, and immersion, Barbu and Bruvels propose readings of ethics and aesthetics that foreground the inherited context of the work of art.
Adam Barbu: I often think about research as a parallel life process in which we grant ourselves the freedom to move beyond the limits of the merely possible. Having recently completed the first year of your doctoral studies, how does your academic work reflect your experience as a mother?
Natalie Bruvels: I’m drawn to the concept of the postmaternal, coined and developed by theorist Julie Stephens. This term offers a useful framework to address how caregiving, maternal subjectivities, and maternal epistemologies are erased in university spaces. It is also a framework that allows us to examine how the catastrophic effects of this erasure are objectified in visual culture. During this period of research as a PhD student, I have immersed myself in different concerns about maternal theory. The layered experiences of mothers are incredibly diverse and need to be taught. And they need to be taught in a feminist way. After all, caregiving is a component of reproductive justice. For the time being, I’m exploring questions of pedagogy rooted in a post-structuralist analysis of words that don’t yet exist—words that we need to make sense of our experiences. In the previous year, completing my MA during the pandemic, I don’t think I saw anyone. Researching and homeschooling was difficult. But I had the opportunity to take Andrea O’Reilly’s maternal theory course at York University, which saved my sanity. To be clear, it saved my life as a researcher. It was the first time I saw someone get up in front of a class and unapologetically create space for this discussion.
AB: In academia, sometimes we wander into what feels like an empty landscape. It can be intimidating to create space for yourself lacking the comforts of disciplinary foundations. At the same time, it is a sign there is more to be done there. What we need is more, not less disruption. How do these theoretical interventions on the postmaternal figure in your artistic practice?
NB: A few years prior, during my time in the MFA program, I began thinking about caregiving through alternative forms of collaboration. I always liked the idea of Tomson and I coming to the Visual Arts Building on weekends. As a parent, you try to give your child experiences that will stay with them. I decided we should go ahead and create something new. It was a learning experience, as I had to rethink the meanings we traditionally assign to authorship.
To begin, I assumed that the work would be prescriptive—that we would follow my idea. I quickly realized, though, that I couldn’t be in control. Yes, I’m responsible for this individual’s safety and well-being. But he is going to do exactly what he wants to do, for as long as he wants to do it. What I want to say, though, is that the work is freeing. Completing an MFA, you’re often probed and expected to have the answers. To say that I can’t anticipate where this work will lead in the future might seem like a deficit. Yet it is the only truthful answer. Right now, I’m taking the studio back into our home. We aren’t collaborating much as I try to put the space back in order.
AB: What about the feedback this work has received? A mother and child working together in the spirit of spontaneous production—this is far from conventional artistic research methodology. I sense you have faced gatekeeping regarding the so-called sanctity of art, both institutionally and interpersonally.
NB: There is the question of artistic merit. I have heard people say: “Why should I be looking at this?” While others might bring up the topic of exploitation, which enrages me and sometimes makes me cry. If there is anyone in the room who genuinely cares about this child, if there is anyone who will suffer the consequences of a lack of love, it is me. And if you’re not feeling protected, if you’re overworked, if you’re exhausted, if it is the wrong time in your menstrual cycle—all these things can add up to the point where you lose your equilibrium. Let’s say it can make it hurt more. In another context, I face gatekeeping from simply saying the word “mom” in an academic setting. There is also gatekeeping concerning the acceptable structure of the nuclear heteronormative family. Further, I have seen critics borrow from emancipatory feminist discourses in ways that deviate from their original intent. In the end, we are speaking about a single mother living below the poverty line, trying to raise her kid during a pandemic with no help. Having this conversation today, I feel the need to foreground that sense of judgment.
AB: I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about Cat Attack Collective’s exhibition Walk in the Park at the Ottawa City Hall Art Gallery. From this collaborative, immersive installation, I see two subjects in dialogue, learning and unlearning from one another through artistic experimentation. I can’t help but think that the question of exploitation acts as a form of silencing.
NB: It serves to erase maternal subjectivities from the public forum of art spectatorship. As an MFA student, I immediately knew that the limitations brought on by COVID would interfere with my ability to complete the coursework and develop my studio practice. So, whenever the question of ethics is raised, I wonder why we refuse to consider the opposite point of view? How is this mother going to make new work? She must simultaneously provide care and find an activity that is engaging for her child. Therefore, they are now a collective. If that collective doesn’t exist, she is not making art—that studio practice is erased. What does it mean that we are ignoring this inherited social context of artistic production?
AB: Walk in the Park troubles neutral, apolitical readings of maternal caregiving. Through a variety of display strategies, you directly engage the context of your arrival to the gallery space as a mother. To this extent, the exhibition is concerned with means as opposed to ends.
NB: Prior to this exhibition, in 2022 we created an ambitious mixed media work for the final MFA exhibition at the Ottawa Art Gallery titled Abound. In the middle of the gallery sat a towering floor-to-ceiling boat wrapped, draped, and tied in colourful reusable plastics. We called it SS Same Boat. Completing the degree, everyone kept telling me: “Oh, Natalie, you’re fine—we’re all in the same boat.” I often use titles to play against the aesthetic. They allow me to express the inner workings of my discontent, particularly in an acerbic, humorous way. For our current exhibition at the Ottawa City Hall Art Gallery, we wanted to reuse the materials from SS Same Boat. Tomson said he wanted to make trees—it wasn’t a long brainstorming session. The title Walk in the Park is beautifully straightforward and utterly facetious. And I would like both things to remain true. One does not erase the other. Instead, the premise and the critique are always already held in tension. Representing the complex relationship between a mother and child through an accumulation of art objects—it is a fantastic puzzle.
Today, many mothers are making challenging feminist work about the maternal—we don’t hear about it.
AB: How might we situate this complexity, art historically speaking?
NB: In Western art history, these interactions have been romanticized by individuals who are not mothers. One concern is the curatorial siloing that occurs. We have been led to back into the corner and be a niche. To call motherhood a niche—this itself is an important piece of evidence that demonstrates how we have internalized such restrictive ideals. Today, many mothers are making challenging feminist work about the maternal—we don’t hear about it. I’m not even sure that we have the eyes for it. I include myself in this category. This observation is partly based on philosopher Julia Kristeva’s essay Stabat Mater (1977). She uses psychoanalytic theory to describe what happens when we look at the artistic motif of the “Madonna and Child,” or any idealized representation of motherhood. For Kristeva, it hardly matters if the viewer is a mother or not—they will identify with the image of the child. And this identification with the child involves a primary narcissism. It is that transportation to a place where I’m nourished, where my needs are met, where I receive care before I had a care in the world. Looking at the “Madonna and Child” is like taking an aesthetic drug. Therefore, when we encounter something like a feminist rendering of the maternal, there is room for profound disappointment, affectively or psychologically. With Walk in the Park, the viewer happens upon a scene that seems ultimately unfulfilling. It is an unsettling landscape of entangled contexts. Here, something rendered historically invisible contends with the problem of what it means to be seen.
You can read Part two of Barbu and Bruvels’ discussion here.
Adam Barbu is a writer, curator, and researcher who holds an M.A. in Art History from the University of Toronto. A recipient of the Middlebrook Prize for Young Canadian Curators, they have produced numerous group exhibitions foregrounding the limits of reparative visibility, including Words Unsaid: Autobiography and Knowing at the University of Ottawa’s Department of Visual Arts (2023). Their recent writings have appeared in publications such as OnCurating, Peripheral Review, and Esse art + opinions. Barbu lectures on queer theory and trans studies locally, nationally, and internationally.
Cat Attack Collective consists of Natalie Bruvels and her son Tomson. They are a multidisciplinary collective working primarily in painting and large-scale installations. Established in 2020, Cat Attack Collective has exhibited at the University of Ottawa, Art Mûr, the Ottawa Art Gallery, and along the Greenboro Pathway as part of Microcosm, the City of Ottawa Public Art Program’s COVID-19 pilot initiative.
Natalie Bruvels holds a Master of Fine Arts and a Master of Arts in Contemporary Art Theory, both from the University of Ottawa. She is currently enrolled in the Feminist and Gender Studies PhD program at the University of Ottawa. Bruvels is researching maternal subjectivity in art and visual culture, while advocating for caregiving supports in a university setting. Bruvels has presented the work of Cat Attack Collective at various academic conferences, including the Museum of Motherhood in St. Petersburg, Florida. She has subsequently published writing in The Journal of Mother Studies.
Tomson is in grade six and is happy to be back at school in person to spend more time with his friends. He loves dodgeball and has a special affinity for zip-ties as an artistic material. He is the youngest artist to have his work exhibited at the Ottawa Art Gallery.