at the Chicago Cultural Center, through September 11

I don’t know if Diane Levesque has children, but I think she probably does, and that they’ve left their stuff all over her house. Women’s lives have always been taken up with objects. Several of Levesque’s superb paintings–eight large oils on canvas and a series of smaller oils on panel, now on view at the Chicago Cultural Center–are portraits, but almost all are deeply concerned with objects. In fact each painting is a kind of catalog, a fantastic and at the same time very domestic conglomeration of things.

The Burrow offers a cutaway view of a toddler watching television in a burrow beneath a graveyard; in contrast to the bright world of things in the burrow, the graveyard is painted in black and white. The television, tuned to a channel where a talking head is posed against a wall of TV monitors, is sitting on a stack of books, including Foucault’s Discipline and Punishment, Camus’ Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, and Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel. I can only speculate on the allusions to Camus and Foucault, but the Rabelais certainly addresses the issue of excess, which runs through all the paintings, as well as the desire to make a world out of objects and, possibly, child rearing. The Burrow has a dark effect: the child’s place is lit by a kerosene lamp, and light glints off some objects and leaves others in shadow, a wind vane sticks up at a crazy angle, and a bowl of stuffed green olives and toys fill the rest of the space.

Painted crockery, toys, clown faces, plastic body parts, and carpenter’s squares appear in several of the paintings, and at least three depict a mirror or some other reflecting surface. In There Are No Bad Guns, which is filled with guns and gun-related images, a garden globe reflects houses with TV antennas across the street from the still life, and in The Noisy Body the surface of a metallic roly-poly clown seems to reflect the painter and a landscape. These images in mirrors are a quote from Dutch still life, genre, and portrait painting; Levesque seems to point to her origins in that tradition, which in part celebrated the objects and bounty of middle-class life and was not infrequently practiced by women. But though her technique is assured and deft, she’s not concerned with representing surfaces the way the northern painters were, and her disorderly piles of objects would alarm a meticulous housewife of any period. She uses paint in a descriptive, slightly expressionistic manner: she doesn’t distort the images but uses color to provide dissonance, movement, and excitement.

One could also place Levesque’s work within the modern tradition of addressing mass consumption and material accumulation. But her surfaces are unlike the glossy surfaces of James Rosenquist, who’s concerned with reproducing yet fragmenting slick magazine images; she paints quickly and descriptively, as if she had some larger purpose and a great deal to say. The domestic setting at first reminded me of Richard Hamilton, but Levesque’s works go in a very different direction. The sense of being overwhelmed by objects points to some social meaning, but the “stuff” here is clearly an individual’s personal accumulation rather than the artist’s comment on our consumer society. In fact Levesque’s individualization of objects owes less to the pop artists than to Frida Kahlo and her method of building up autobiographical significance and connotative meanings. Any influence from Kahlo, however, has been thoroughly digested and reworked. Levesque’s portraits use the piles of stuff in the tradition of European portraiture, as “attributes” of saints or other important people (indeed, I recognized the wounded Saint Sebastian in The Pharmakos). Attributes were considered external signs of the person’s identity; here, portraits of a gardener and a reader are surrounded by objects that are important to them.

But overall these paintings frustrate the desire to arrange and categorize–it’s hard to determine exactly how the painter has selected the objects for these jumbles. One feels like a mother stepping into a room filled with things and not knowing quite how to put them in order, because there are so many of them and they don’t fit into neat groups. Not only are the objects disordered in terms of categories–how does the carpenter’s square fit with the plastic ducks and the see-through body?–but the painter doesn’t use a consistent scale. A pear might be the same size as a woman’s leg, and a marble the size of a hand.

The sense of being overwhelmed by objects may not be associated with one’s sex, but three paintings here deal directly with women’s bodies and the processes of motherhood and housekeeping. The Chrysalis portrays a woman lying on her back on an ochre beach at the edge of a flat cobalt ocean. She seems to be in a birthing position, and her breasts and belly are swollen and reddish: Levesque colors the woman with alarming, dissonant mixtures of red, mauve, pink, and orange. The woman wears a look of concentration, as if breathing during a Lamaze birth; over her open mouth is a globe. Is she balancing the world with her breath? Above her spread legs hangs a fetus or newborn, mauve, raw. Among the pile of objects over the mother are a bunch of grapes, a huge pear, and a carpenter’s square. Beside her is a folded newspaper boat, a turquoise Chinese vase with yellow figures holding an enormous rose, and a giant red tomato cut in half. She’s tangled in a bright yellow rope and holding a statuette of a man in a bell jar.

The horizon line in The Chrysalis is tilted, which works with the array of colors and things to create a stirring sense of vertigo. I can’t recall ever seeing another painting that so accurately portrays the feelings of being overwhelmed, of urgency and ceaseless activity, associated with birth and motherhood. The pear (being measured with calipers), the rose, the tomato, the ocean, and some of the other objects have allegorical overtones, but like the allegorical meanings often given such objects, they’re thrown together rather than arranged. It’s as if, in the midst of keeping the world suspended while lying in an ungainly position with her legs in the air, she must also deal with these traditional meanings. The flotsam and jetsam of motherhood.

One of the small oils on panel doesn’t have the physical presence of The Chrysalis but extends and refines the theme of the mother’s body. The God Wrestler portrays a woman on her hands and knees; her swollen breasts, with painful-looking bright red nipples, are suspended over a white crockery bowl presumably there to catch the milk. It’s hard to make out the woman’s expression because her face is in profile and shaded, but she seems to be frowning or straining, in contrast to the concentration of the woman in The Chrysalis. On her back is a Kool-Aid jug or something similar with a face, and inside the sweating jug is a Madonna. Both Madonna and woman are dressed in blue, the woman in what might be jeans (though her breasts are bare) and the Madonna in robes. She is smiling serenely as Madonnas do, her hands delicately folded and her hair falling gracefully along her shoulders. But the woman herself once again conveys the sense of ungainly physical labor, of the pressure of milk in one’s breasts, not to mention carrying things on one’s back–all conventional associations of motherhood: meaning conferred by objects. The face on the Kool-Aid jug is grimacing here, unlike those on the actual jugs; and the holy mother, who doesn’t seem involved in the physicality of motherhood, is both unreachable and burdensome. As in most of the paintings, the woman and her things occupy a shallow, almost theaterlike space at the edge of the ocean, here a beach with sand castles and sand drawings. Levesque uses a smaller brush in the oil-on-panel paintings–but they’re equally facile and assured, and loaded with color.

In The Noisy Body a pile of objects seems to question the identity and nature of the female body. Beneath a baby in a pickle jar and a bright blue vase with one blooming iris and another one shriveled and past its bloom lies a plastic upper-body anatomical model of a woman, blond with a classical Greek coiffure and a blank classical expression. She is surrounded not only by lurid old plastic viscera but by a group of garish and grimacing ceramic heads with men’s faces on them. Like all of Levesque’s toys, dolls, and other humanoid forms, these seem to act out a little drama within her stagelike shallow picture plane. The objects seem to have characters, often dark ones, yet the drama remains elusive, potential. Levesque’s ability to personify may be a gift from her children: people who spend a lot of time with kids may, like them, begin to speak to toys and consider them part of their social relations.

In 1976 one of the most influential poets of our time, Adrienne Rich, identified motherhood as both a profound experience and “an enforced identity and a political institution” to which mothers were expected to respond “unambivalently,” like the serene Madonna. The plethora of things and colors and ideas in Levesque’s paintings break the silence and stillness that have characterized women’s lives; ambivalence is part of the mess. Levesque has begun to sketch out a visual vocabulary for the profound experience of her life and of motherhood–she desentimentalizes and demystifies conceptions about how the body works, what it feels like to inhabit a female body, and ultimately what it feels like to reproduce. She addresses a range of complex relationships between people and things–a vast project–and puts her work in a technical, historical, and philosophical context. It’s a fascinating jumble, one she’s clearly sorting out for us.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.