Being a parent requires attentiveness, and when you can muster it, patience. In many ways, parenting small children is not unlike being an artist; both necessitate curiosity, mindfulness, and a certain amount of nimbleness. The works in Jessica Labatte’s solo exhibition at Western Exhibitions, “Knee-deep in the cosmic overwhelm,” form a web of connections between the experience of being an artist and a parent stuck inside with their family during the pandemic.
When COVID first hit, Labatte found herself isolating at home with her husband, Eric May, (a fellow artist who runs the gallery Roots & Culture), and their toddler, Avery. She was also pregnant; her second child was born in June 2020. So in addition to her work as the head of the photography department at Northern Illinois University, Labatte was suddenly in charge of occupying Avery. She brought supplies from her basement studio upstairs to establish artmaking stations for herself and Avery, and also ordered him educational STEM books. Both of these prompted several of the new series on view.
“A lot of this work comes out of the curiosity of thinking about science in the world but from a really childlike perspective,” she says.
The Erratics is a luscious photo series, made when Labatte and Avery would fill containers around the house with water and random objects—tiny pom-poms, bits of colored paper—and leave them outside to freeze. Labatte would then photograph the ice sculptures in the studio, set on a mirror and lit by multi-colored lights. Printed large—at 43 by 28 inches—the melting blocks are so detailed they almost seem three-dimensional. It isn’t hard to imagine these ephemeral sculptures as metaphors for the changing climate or the fleeting years of childhood.
Similarly, the Parallel Play series consists of sculptures of everyday detritus made solely by Avery and photographed by Labatte. Here, chunks of styrofoam are stuck with plastic cutlery, straws, pipe cleaners, and colorful feathers. One of the most striking, Balancing Equilibrium, features a horizontal bendy straw supporting one that’s vertical, the latter of which sports feathers emerging from either side. The sculptures are photographed on gradient backgrounds. In the gallery, they’re hung amongst similar-looking frames that don’t contain photos but instead the actual sculptures themselves. The works encourage close looking.
Labatte got into photography by chance. As a kid, she played competitive ice hockey—primarily on boys’ teams. But a bad arm break ended that, so for a time Labatte went to boarding school in Canada, to play on a more competitive girls’ team. That school offered a photography class, and Labatte was instantly hooked. “Being in the black-and-white darkroom was so magical,” she says. From the very beginning, she was interested in constructing pictures, using a scene to tell a story or evoke a feeling. The first photograph she printed was of classmates’ legs, clad in their boarding school uniforms, standing in front of the school’s brick facade, with a small teacup in the middle. She has loved photography ever since.
That connection to the cold weather comes through in the video Total Accumulation, a looped edit of the cut paper snowflakes Labatte likes to make during the winter. The audio comes from the sounds of the household: toys, one of her children crying, another learning to tell time. It’s a crinkling, sometimes jarring soundtrack, illustrative of the nonstop noise of little children. (Labatte’s fondness for paper snowflakes extended to her students earlier this year, when one of her classes broke the Guinness World Record for making the largest paper snowflake. It clocked in at 44 feet by 6 inches.)
Almanac for Shade Gardeners is an ongoing series, begun in 2017, that sets the stage for much of the work in the show. Here, the artist constructs still lifes in her studio, made up of flowers and plants from her garden alongside minor objects from everyday life. A Time of New Suns features a bouquet of goldenrod set before a tie-dyed backdrop, alongside wildflowers and a pair of dried peach pits. It’s a burst of color that feels particularly welcome during this unseasonably cold autumn. Dream Feed is a psychedelic tableaux, featuring violet irises, glow-in-the-dark stars, a plastic snake, modeling clay, and other tiny elements that are like secrets for the viewer to discover. The items are again set on a mirror and photographed against a black background, like a magician’s props.
The series title refers to the land attached to Labatte’s house, which is a wooded lot. It doesn’t get a lot of sun, so only particular shade plants can grow there. “I just thought it was a perfect metaphor for what it’s like to be an artist parent, trying to navigate: how do I be an artist in this world?” she says. As an art student, there weren’t a lot of examples among Labatte’s professors of how to be both an artist and a mother. For Labatte, figuring out how to navigate motherhood and her art practice feels analogous to figuring out how to grow things in her shade garden—both feel like learning “how to nurture things in a hostile environment.”
The exhibition is enveloped by a strikingly vibrant wallpaper that Labatte printed specially for this show. It consists of scans of construction paper collages the artist made, printed out in vastly oversized dimensions. The scale lets the fuzzy details of the paper fibers come through. The collages are layered in Photoshop, which adds shadows and sharp color combinations. Flower shapes recur throughout, bringing a bright, mod feel to all the work, and a sense of connectedness.
“Knee-deep in the cosmic overwhelm” is borrowed from Diane Ackerman’s poem, “Diffraction (for Carl Sagan).” The passage speaks to the expansive relationship of all things, from the interdependence of a family to the wonder that the universe elicits. Becoming a parent led Labatte to slow down, to be more mindful in each moment. She paid more attention to the changing of the seasons, the growing cycle of plants, and the milestones of her children. That shift in attention is apparent here, and this exhibition, with all its tiny details, is an invitation into that same sort of slowing down, looking, noticing.
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