Praise Shadows is an art gallery down the street from Coolidge Corner that opened late last year. In a time when so many cultural spaces are closing or in jeopardy, Praise Shadows’ appearance is refreshing. With five exhibits under its belt and dozens more booked into 2023, its founder and CEO Yng-Ru Chen and its manager Hailey Hartshorn have put forth a momentum that promises to promote and provide opportunities for emerging and mid-career artists for years to come.
Fun House, the current exhibit mounted at the gallery, is a solo show of paintings, drawings, and ceramic sculptures by NYC-based artist Madeline Donahue. Inspired by her experience quarantining with her two young children, the works are playful, absurd, joyful, and awkward. An aesthetic of childhood and all the surreality that goes along with it brings a tight visual cohesion to the show that makes its subject matter especially worthwhile.
Children will always be an interesting and controversial talking point. The tension between keeping children safe and protected, and respecting them as individuals with their own feelings, impulses, and agency is a difficult thing to navigate. Art about children is often overly romantic and objectifying, made specifically from the point of view of an adult, rather than a former child. It’s difficult for me to appreciate such portrayals of childhood, the tropes of precious cherubs innocently needing rescue from all the world’s evils. It can be especially hard for me, a transgender woman, to approach art about motherhood without some level of anxiety. The anxiety comes not from any denial of motherhood’s beauty and importance, but from the knowledge that it is constantly weaponized as a reason to exclude trans people.
Madeline Donahue’s work is neither romantic nor objectifying. It does not take adulthood on as a point of view. It is more focused on breastfeeding as an inherent part of motherhood than I felt thrilled about, but its lack of seriousness made it work for me. The show’s great strength is, in fact, its rejection of adulthood altogether. The primary way the distinction between mother and children is made is by the size of the figures. But the sense of chaos, fun, playfulness, and abandon is communal. It is clear in each work who the mother is, but it is just as clear that childhood has consumed her, perhaps bringing her closer to the child part of her self. Any reference to the adult world(preparing meals, doing yoga, staining a window sill) looks more like a circus act than a responsibility.
The absence of men(except for Mr. Bill), the recurring presence of a lazily affectionate dog, and the soft frankness with which the artist deals with nudity all come together to create a world specific in its view that suggests we are all animals, all children, all deserving of a life free of the weight of patriarchy. Breasts, bums, and bellies hang freely, without a hint of sexualization. The children, unaware of social impropriety, scale their mother like a jungle gym as she poops or pees, reminding the viewer of what bodily functions truly are inherent and how they connect us throughout the various stages of life. I did long for some reference to to all the poopoo and peepee that comes out of children, mostly because of how entirely appropriate it would have been for the exhibit, and how rarely I have the opportunity to call for it in the name of propriety.
The show really is as fun as its title suggests, but also very smart in its deliberate lack of seriousness. It’s nice to see art about childhood that stays about childhood without succumbing to the responsibility and anxiety of parenthood, made by a parent. Make sure to catch it at Praise Shadows before it closes May 23rd.
Praise Shadows Art Gallery
313A Harvard Street