Looking back on this formative period from adulthood, the artists incorporate keepsakes and domestic objects charged with emotional and physical connotations, to emphasize the influence of childhood on their personal and artistic development.
At first glance, Soup by Vija Celmins is an image of a humble meal and yet the painting reveals itself to be much deeper in meaning. For Celmins, who grew up in Latvia during the war, soup is not only symbolic of a European tradition and a family ritual of mealtimes together, it connotes nourishment, the protective warmth of home, and stability in the chaos of war. In this painting Celmins captures the fears and anxieties, as well as the comforts of a child whose world is contained within the domestic sphere. Speaking with Robert Gober, Celmins affirms the lasting impression of her childhood memories on her artistic creativity:
Your work may have been coloured by your religious experience, or whatever, and I think mine was coloured mostly by the chaos of my early childhood in the war…It was like, this is it, you’re born, you’re here, you have to deal with it. I was so afraid of being abandoned and lost in it. But later, in the studio, I think I relived all these things ...
In Mike Kelley’s Ahh…Youth the juxtaposed images of smiling teddy bears and a self-portrait taken from his high school yearbook is at once humorous and strange. Distancing his own childhood experiences from those explored in his work, Kelley invents fictions based on a pastiche of childhood objects, stories, fears and fantasies:
my biography is fairly dull. It’s much better to fill in these empty spaces with fiction than the boring truth. I filled in the blanks with pastiches of things that had affected me when I was a child: cartoons, films…
The cinematic suite of images gives credence to Kelley’s admission to creating fictions around his own childhood and also invites the viewer to project their own experience of youth onto the work. Although seemingly playful and innocent, the alienation of the images in single frames heightens the discord between the happiness of childhood play and the disaffections of the adult artist, conscious of the traumatic memories such images may harbor.
Playing with the tension between the everyday objects used in their work and the power of these objects to unseat our emotions, Mike Kelley and Robert Gober employ humour, irony and seriousness to enable us to enter their work and engage with more challenging and fraught material. Gober’s Tilted Playpen, is a prime example of the artist’s ‘psychological furniture’. Positioning the familiar and strange in opposition, the associations of this universally domestic object with protection and child well-being are called into question by the object’s slanted pose. The playpen can no longer be seen as a safe haven, the element of ‘play’ is absent and instead the object becomes a ‘pen’ – a site of entrapment.
Uniting all of the works in the exhibition is the recourse to familiar objects which not only resonate with the artists, but which also speak to the viewer. Robert Gober said: “Memory is like looking up at the stars, it’s not a linear thing”. The artists’ recourse to childhood memories does not follow a clear narrative, instead it raises questions, affects our emotions and challenges the idea that to become an adult one must put aside the childish things of youth.