The immediate strength of “A Group of Related Things,” Sarah Irvin’s new solo exhibition at Culture House, lies in the tension the pieces produce in conversation with each other. A retrospective grounded in the present, the show is at once a fluid exploration of the human body and a painstakingly deliberate meta-analysis of the human mind’s obsession with classification.
Irvin began creating pieces included in the show roughly five years ago when she also began her journey through motherhood. Her body became the inspiration for her recent body of work, a double entendre not to be ignored. “Infant Feeding Log,” for example, is an index of each time Irvin breastfed, with more than 2400 events recorded on letter-pressed cards notarized and hand-stamped to include vital information like feeding duration and breast side.
“I’m trying to put it in the language of a timesheet, like paid labor,” Irvin says. “Something that I find really fascinating is that if you breastfeed or chest feed your child, then they are fed, but it doesn’t get recorded as part of economic labor. But if you choose to formula feed, that is tracked in the GDP because you’re paying for something.”
Although in some ways the work does clinicalize the act, the amount of care given to individually hand stamp each record tells another side of the story.
“But there’s no difference in the result, and it’s very time consuming to do one of those compared to the other. So if we say [as a society] that’s not worth anything, we’re saying we don’t value the time, or the people doing it. It’s a little bit uncomfortable to be putting [the work] into this type of language, because there’s something even the most rigorous record keeping can’t capture about what that value is.”
With no imagery or direct visual representation of mothering or the female figure itself, Irvin’s pieces remove the body from the lived experience, creating instead a sense of disembodiment or detachment from the emotional weight of caregiving and transforming the act into a process. It is in this sentiment that Irvin’s work reaches those who have not experienced motherhood, as it begins to delve into questions of caretaking, and what it means to take care of a person versus a body, an other versus the self — and how we functionally attend to these needs in myriad ways in the course of seconds and across a lifetime.
In “X Stamp,” Irvin separates the small ‘x’ symbol that indicated left or right breast in “Infant Feeding Log” from its previously ascribed context, rendering it a signifier no more. Here, repeated lines of tiny ‘x’s in the same distressed blue hue skim across the paper, traces of the wear on the stamp evident in the variations from mark to mark. But even a pattern without meaning is always subtly organic, striking to the mind and pleasing to the eye.
“I wanted to take something that holds that meaning over there really specifically to indicate something that is meticulously documented, and undo that meticulous nature,” Irvin says of “X Stamp.”
“A common theme in my work is to create a category or a boundary or create something that holds meaning only to kind of dissolve it and show how all of those categories were constructed in the first place,” she continues.
A second interpretation of this piece as distinct can be offered as well: the ‘x’s as female sex chromosomes (females have two Xs, while males have an X and a Y chromosome) repeated over and over until fading with the wearing down of the stamp may hint at how the female experience (or in this case, the early stages of mothering), can wear on a person until she folds into an altered state outside of the body.
And it is in such an altered state that we are guided to the remaining pieces in the show. Following the birth of her child, Irvin suffered from postpartum psychosis, during which time she experienced severe delusions that she didn’t even know were possible. One was so strong that it inspired a series of four works made up of small, thin cards hand-pressed with the chemical symbols of the 11 elements that make up most of the human body.
“I had a belief that my body had been split into the individual atoms and dispersed through the entire universe and then recombined. And it was very upsetting and disorienting,” Irvin recalls.
In her attempt to recreate that disassociation, the series asks, “What is a body when it is broken down and rearranged?” And, “What about when it is existing in multiple arrangements simultaneously?”
On the small cards, the essential elements of the human body are repeated in sets of one thousand, and appear in each set in the proportion in which they exist in the body. The first of the four works is a video depicting hands shuffling the stamped element cards; in another they are strong up on scarlet thread like a quilt; in a third they are boxed up very small; and finally, in the fourth, suspended around the room in a winding, helical pattern reminiscent of DNA.
The exhibition had been slated to show last year, but was delayed due to Covid-19. A new kind of dissociation, brought on this time by external factors surrounding the pandemic, inspired additional pieces added to the show. Repetition and patterns continue to appear, as does the vibrant blue pigment and thin red lines seen elsewhere throughout the exhibition.
Moving through a year of bodies stuck in motion in space, Irvin uses cyanotypes to catalogue her child’s toys, photograms of dust and dirt collected during 74 days of stay-at-home order, and grade school penmanship practice pages with blurred lines to bring people into the home: another body constantly being rearranged and given new meaning.
“Sarah Irvin: A Group of Related Things” is presented in partnership with Massey Klein Gallery and is on view at Culture House throughJuly 17. For more on Irvin and her art, visit www.sarahirvinart.com. For the latest from Culture House, visit www.culturehousedc.org and follow @culturehousedc on Instagram.
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