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: Perhaps we can turn to the various symbols that appear and reappear throughout Walk in the Park. It is an unusual environment that strays from anything we commonly associated with “the natural.” First, my mind travels to the paintings of Roblox gameplay.
Natalie Bruvels: Something I continue to grapple with is the all-at-once feeling being a mother. Recently, I started using Roblox imagery in my work. I used to paint solely from screenshots—these scenes seemed too cool and distant. Eventually, I found pleasure in adding traces, stencils, and layers from the so-called real world. The process simply felt more tactile. Some might assume that I’m addressing the effects of video game culture in the work. In a way, I’m engaging in this discourse, however it isn’t a negative commentary. Roblox was how I could see our family during COVID. These works are family portraits. It is as if the camera, the screenshot, acts as an additional family member. These scenes are tender-hearted, although Roblox doesn’t necessarily look that way.
AB: On representing nature, we should also describe the walls, covered with layers of colourful plastic tablecloths.
NB: Some viewers have a strong reaction to the use of plastic based on environmental ethics. Working with my kid, I find it a useful, workable medium. From a practical standpoint, it is reusable. And I don’t need to clean up after. I can put the sheets in a bag and store them away. Over time, they develop their own character. The more I return to them, the more I might shred them. Sometimes they look like tentacles and sometimes they look like the sky—you never quite know. Too often, we turn to artists with an angst that is rooted in our collective inability to solve environmental problems. In fact, throughout the installation, I’m strategically eliciting judgments. Because you cannot be a mother and walk through this world without judgements.
“You need to be able to provide, you need to be able to think on the fly and problem-solve, you need to be a warm presence they can turn to when they are sick…”
Finally, I’m interested in the reasons why we feel compelled to use these materials in the first place. We might see them at a birthday party, for example. The function of these colourful spaces is simply to say: “I love you.” They have power to communicate the message: “I care you’re here—let’s find a way through this together.” From these different considerations, the plastic allows me to think through the complex processes of mothering. You need to be able to provide, you need to be able to think on the fly and problem-solve, you need to be a warm presence they can turn to when they are sick—all these things are true simultaneously.
Still, I find that I have this fantastic chip on my shoulder. It wasn’t until I attended Andrea O’Reilly’s seminar that I gave myself permission to think about motherhood in a feminist way. Forming that connection, you don’t feel so alone. You don’t feel like a deficient mother. This is what writers like Adrienne Rich were concerned with in the 1970s, namely the everyday experience of mothering coupled with the classist, patriarchal, racist institution of motherhood.
AB: As a poet, Rich also interrogated how this institution is inherited and thus recreated from one generation to the next. I’m thinking of Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963), where she writes about invisible domestic labour and cyclical gendered violence. For Rich, it is violence that belongs to a culture of silence. Your work contends with the contemporary cultural resonance of this silence. Having this conversation, then, we seem most interested in the words unsaid by the Madonna of the “Madonna and Child.” Raphael’s Small Cowper Madonna (c. 1504-05), for example, offers the viewer legibility. A certain visual transmissibility is at stake. Alternatively, with Walk in the Park,the landscape is rendered abstract. That landscape is unsettled as we move into opacity. A park is supposed to be a shared space. We read books, we watch birds, we visit friends—all in the company of perfect strangers. I think this feeling of community is fictional, though.
NB: Let’s say that our experience of the park is not all the same. A mother is providing care and working to keep it all together on her own.
AB: To the passer-by, the depth of her experience, the context of her arrival, is easily overlooked. A park setting is fundamentally a public setting that is structured according to some contract of social acceptability. Yet Walk in the Park makes visible what has been rendered invisible. That is, we see the physical and emotional labour of maternal caregiving. This is not a walk in the forest. It is a walk in a park, which is itself a constructed environment. In this rethinking of that constructed environment, there is an expansion and contraction between private and public worlds. Here, an aesthetic reinvention occurs. The park is no longer a seamless, smooth surface of leisure activity. It is a texture—an inherited context. The work is doing more with less. And that feminist sense of maximalism offers us the chance to rethink the canon of Western art history. Many would argue that minimalism represents the height of modernism, where the painted surface and sculptural form become indistinguishable through the absolute reduction of the image. Highlighting the maximalism of Cat Attack Collective, we are not simply asking: What is painting? What is sculpture? What is art? But instead: Who is an artist? What is a studio? What is the relationship between maternal caregiving and artistic production?
NB: It makes people upset when you show them this side of art.
AB: According to that inherited myth of modernist art, the studio is a private space where the genius closes his door to the world and goes to work on a masterpiece. I think about Brancusi’s recently recreated studio at the Centre Pompidou and the ways in which this privileged space becomes fetishized. A copy of a copy of a room filled with nearly priceless phallic objects—there is perhaps no greater metaphor for the historical durability of these relations.
NB: Our work is maximalist with a Dollar Store budget. The artist Jenny McMaster called it “messimalism.” I think about the notion of spilling over from a feminist theoretical perspective. The emphasis on plastic originated from practical considerations leading up to an MFA critique. I was grouping my paintings together into one expansive blob. Tomson’s work was on the other side of the room in a smaller formation. The two bodies were approaching each other, almost touching. But the surface underneath looked like a studio wall—it became distracting. I needed color quickly. And it needed to be inexpensive.
AB: The plastic tablecloths are readymade. They also behave as a connective tissue, a second skin for the gallery walls. In this sense, Walk in the Park rejects the visual logic of the white cube gallery. What the white cube shares with the park setting is the myth of neutrality—the fiction of a common ground. In the installation, the ground of meaning emerges from a place of visual and material excess that is, paradoxically, tied to a series of constraints. It is, as you suggest, a context that spills over. It is a textured surface of meaning that begins, first and foremost, with the question of feminist worldmaking.
NB: Returning to the question of legibility, I don’t think children are viewing the installation as an aesthetic reinvention of the park or an interrogation of modernist neutrality. In the busyness of creating the work, you don’t have time to sit and enjoy it until much, much later. For me, that much, much later, came the day before the show closed. I could feel the space. It made me emotional because I saw it as beautiful. I was proud of what we were able to do. I was having a heartfelt introspective moment when several children came in running, laughing, and screaming. And that is how they view this space. So, legibility varies.
AB: Walk in the Park offers a feminist critique of maternal erasure that is born from sensorial pleasure. For any viewer of any age, that visual excess is the pull inward. But what is made visible only scratches the surface of an inherited context, in art and life.
Read part one of Barbu and Bruvels’s 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.