Motherhood changes you—and your art | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Motherhood changes you—and your art 

Gwendolyn Zabicki’s attention to time is the focus of her exhibition at Heaven Gallery.

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click to enlarge Self Portrait with Theodora

Self Portrait with Theodora

courtesy the artist

After enjoying the burst of 50-degree weather this weekend, I decided to pop into Heaven Gallery with a few friends. Heaven, which has served as a vintage shop and DIY gallery in Wicker Park since the late 90s, was exhibiting Gwendolyn Zabicki’s solo exhibition “In a Room with Many Windows,” titled after a poem by Jane Hirshfield. It’s a fitting name for Zabicki, who has worked with themes of mirrors, windows, and passageways in previous paintings and projects. Zabicki earned her BFA from SAIC in 2005 and an MFA from UIC in 2012. Since then her work has shown all over the city—from Hyde Park Art Center to Roman Susan to Comfort Station

Much of Zabicki’s artistic interests lie in the oppressive systems that devour women. She has referenced Pat Mainardi’s 1970 essay, “The Politics of Housework,” which details “progressive men” and how they still avoid feminized work, or work that the woman of the house takes responsibility for. Mainardi writes that “it is a traumatizing experience for someone who has always thought of himself as being against any oppression or exploitation of one human being by another to realize that in his daily life he has been accepting and implementing (and benefiting from) this exploitation.” Cleaning and managing the home are still things that go unnoticed, and this burden still largely extends to women.

Zabicki’s works focus on the mundane moments and the banality of life. While these new works may not outwardly criticize the patriarchal roles of housework, they reflect something new—motherhood. Since giving birth to her daughter Theodora a year ago, Zabicki is awake more hours than she used to be and is much busier than before. She tells me that there is also a lot of down time when she feeds her daughter or holds her while she sleeps. In those moments she is alone with her thoughts. The artist and her relationship to time have been transformed.

Zabicki works out of her studio at Mana Contemporary in Pilsen. “It was really important to me to have a studio outside my home, especially for my daughter's first year of life,” Zabicki says. “Because I wanted to have a reason to leave the house, and I thought it might help me hang on to my identity and my sanity.” In the days when she isn’t with her daughter, she hires a babysitter. She says she is just as productive as she was when she came into the studio five days a week. “I don't have the luxury of blowing off studio days anymore to stay home and eat cookie dough and watch Mahogany, which is a great movie starring Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, and Anthony Perkins and not a waste of time at all. Clarity has been one of the big upsides of having a child. You quickly learn what matters [and] get rid of what you no longer have time for, i.e. Netflix, shallots, procrastination.” Being a mother and an artist takes a great deal of multitasking and in the past year Zabicki seems to have found the secret to prioritizing certain tasks and goals. In 20 minutes she can get a coat of gesso on a few canvases, send a few e-mails, wash her brushes, and eat some trail mix. On the drive home from the studio, she uses a breast pump, which she promises isn’t as scary as it sounds.

Self Portrait with Theodora is a piece in the exhibition featuring the artist holding her daughter. Here, the viewer sees the artist multitasking in the bathroom where she is holding her baby while brushing her teeth. Both Zabicki and Theodora are gazing in the same direction as if something has caught their eye. These images that Zabicki has created—the moments in-between the rush of life—are related to the artist’s relationship to time. The fleeting thoughts that Zabicki illustrates stitch together to create her everyday life. In the piece Hold the Door, Zabicki has painted a silhouette of a person exiting a building and going outside towards a blue landscape. Looking at this painting feels like summer. The rush of Lake Michigan is so close and shorts weather is just around the corner. The distance between the person opening the door and the viewer reaching this same door is close but not close enough. If you lived inside of the painting, you can imagine the little jog you would do while running to catch the door. The person would be awkwardly standing there, arm extended with a tight-lipped smile as you picked up the pace. Hold the Door is a familiar moment. It’s relatable, banal, and average. But here are where Zabicki’s thoughts are taking her.

The diptych The Best Place to Cry is in the Shower features two doors that are slightly ajar. One door is front-lit and the other is backlit with a sliver of light appearing from the other side. There are many images like this in Zabicki’s oeuvre—pieces that look into a space through a door or window. In fact, the window is one of Zabicki’s favorite tropes in painting. “I've been painting windows, both inside and outside, for a long time,” she says. “Sometimes looking into a window feels melancholic, because we catch a glimpse of something intriguing like a birthday party or a man watching a glowing television, but we know we will never get to know those people in any meaningful way.” And while these particular doors aren’t windows, they are creeping into another space, a passageway that is unknown and unseen. As the viewer we know someone or something is on the other side—the light is on, the shower could be running—but we aren’t physically in the room and may never know what is on the other side.

In Hirshfield’s poem she writes, “In a room with many windows / some thoughts slide past uncatchable, ghostly / Three silent bicyclists. Slowly, a woman on crutches.” Zabicki says that when she sits on the couch with her sleeping baby in her arms, this poem resonates with her. Thoughts vibrate in her mind, flashes of images that she will transform into paintings for us to fall into. v

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