Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Mater unfamilias

Nana's Dilemma by Pants Acrylic on Canvas 100cm x 80cm

This is a portrait of Ma Pants. I haven't ever shown it to her. Despite the fact that everyone who has seen it and knows her thinks it captures her essence succinctly, I think it would probably make her feel uncomfortable. It's true her head isn't that big and her wardrobe certainly isn't that small, but otherwise it's accurate.

I expect she would be embarrassed by the picture and I have tried to work out why I would necessarily assume that. Mother and daughter relationships are complex but ours operates as if it was composed of one thin layer of scripted etiquette, like a simple over-the-counter bank transaction. I could try and do it differently, and sometimes I feel like having a go, but I mostly don't want to get into any bother.

Ma Pants is primarily interested in clothing and always has been. She is very much a woman of her time and place. Most of her friends are the same. They dress up, cover their faces in slap and go to lunch. It doesn't do anyone any harm. She is not profligate. She spends very little on clothes these days as she already has so many and she certainly doesn't spend much on lunch. Ma Pants's walk-in closet is bigger than her bathroom.

When she is preparing to go to a luncheon or meeting of one of her many social groups, she will lay several choices of separates out on the bed and manoeuvre them about until she has the optimum combination. I like to think that when I was interpreting her, I did so without judgement, although I can't pretend that there's no conflict when it comes to what I think is important in life. Ma Pants does have other dimensions. She is politically literate, left-leaning, well-read and enjoys the movies. So it's not that there's a huge ethical gulf. But, if I am staying with her, she will always come and ask me, 'do I look all right?' before she leaves the house. No matter how gruffly I rebuff, she always does it. I find it peculiarly undermining to think that a woman in her eighties can be insecure about her appearance.

In choosing the context for this portrait, I drew on a trope that is associated with both my childhood and Ma Pants's. I remember with great fondness my Dress-up Susan. She was later superseded with a Sindy doll for which I happily made garments out of scraps. I also borrowed from the famously sartorial Gilbert & George who had created a similar dress-up concept with a few different suits you could drape around them.

For me it would be nice to think I could one day scrape away a few outer layers and come to a deeper understanding of my mother but I fear there would be a quid pro quo involved and I'm not all that sure I feel like paying that price, even assuming I could attain the self-awareness that would make it possible.