Radical Looking: (Newly) Seeing Art With My Baby

The author’s son touches “Con nuestras manos construimos deidades / With our hands we build deities,” by AMBOS collective. Courtesy Maya Mackrandilal.

When our son was nine and a half weeks old and the only place we had managed to take him was the pediatrician’s office, my husband and I put on clothes fit for being in public and took him to the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, for the child-friendly gallery walkthrough of their Rebecca Morris retrospective, organized by the Hey Baby Feminist Parenting Group. It was our son’s first real outing into the world and a way for us to tell ourselves that our lives would return to us one day, that the weeks and months of sleep snatched in one- to two-hour chunks (if we were lucky) would not last forever. That the cluster feeding, exhaustion, hormones, anxiety, and depression that constituted my daily reality wouldn’t last forever. I didn’t know what to expect but figured the bright, high-contrast artwork in the show would capture our baby’s attention. While I stayed with the group, my husband took our son around to different paintings. Later, when I went to check on them, I discovered our little one so excited by Untitled (#18-20) that he was laughing—or at least his version: sort of smiling, body-wriggling, and grunting. The painting features a highly reflective and textured silver field interrupted by fragments that resemble torn pieces of paper dotted with watery gestures, blots, and splatters. The effect is of a painter’s test sheet blown up to scale. The only way I can describe that moment is magical: seeing him light up, his little mind activated so profoundly by the simple act of looking at a piece of art. I felt that I was witness to something profound, a truth that as an artist “professionalized” by my academic education and over a decade of hustling in the art world, I had lost touch with. That beneath all the history and theory and art criticism, there is a fundamental human experience of art, something beyond our intellectualization. Something rooted in the body, something cosmic, something special.

When I carve out time to look at art with my son—whether it’s an impromptu visit to a gallery in our Thai Town neighborhood or treks to MOCA, LACMA, and the Hammer—I don’t have the luxury of methodically going through an exhibition, reading all the wall text, and savoring each work, which was a way of looking I honed through art school. Now I prioritize exhibitions with bright colors and interesting textures, seeking enticing sensory experiences for my baby. I quickly take in what appeals to me before the short fuse of my son’s attention span, his growing excitement, or impending nap time compels us back to the car. Because of this, I’ve been reflecting on my practice of looking at art, both in the experience of watching my child’s evolving reactions and observing my own changing gaze, as I whittle down a familiar ritual to its most essential components.

Infancy, defined as zero to three years of age, is the stage of human development with the most neuroplasticity. An infant’s brain can create up to one million connections a second. The way an infant perceives the world is radically different from how we see it. Research suggests that their perception is similar to an adult’s perception when they’re on psychoactive drugs. So the next time you see an infant enraptured by a twig or acting like their entire world has been destroyed when you take it away, keep in mind that their whole life is like an endless psychedelic trip. Put another way, their perception pulls us out of our own adult limitations and into a liminal space where literally anything and everything is possible—which is where an expanded definition of art can take root. Following Angela Davis’s definition of radical—“grasping things at the root”—I’ve been wondering if looking at art with my son is teaching me a way of looking that we could think of as radical. That this new way of looking gets to the root of the act before the trappings of white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, and other oppressive systems weigh it down. As I release my attachment to the decades (centuries?) of intellectualization heaped upon the practice of art, particularly in Western culture, I am trying to look at art in its most basic sense as a place where one mind meets another.

Through making and viewing art, a connection is made between minds that transcends space and time. And with each viewing, as new minds come into contact with the work, the connections increase, leaving their traces on this terrain we call a piece of art. What if our gaze zoomed out to see these past, present, and future connections as we looked at a piece of art? Might this lead to a way of seeing that decenters authorship, resists the idea of completion, and even challenges the notion of the maker or viewer as a fixed “self”?

As I make a practice of inhabiting the gaze of my infant, I begin to wonder: what if we looked at art as emergent, an expression of life force, the same way we might look at an interesting mushroom growing on a log in the forest, or the sun as it breaks through the rain? From within this gaze, I ask myself: What is outside of capitalism? Outside of patriarchy? Outside of the academy? Capitalism requires value, patriarchy requires binaries, the academy requires the intellect, and all require a relationship to power. I think of Dr. Bayo Akomolafe’s invitations to engage fugitive epistemologies, to get lost in all the things Empire rejects as other and unintelligible. I think of his definition of post-humanism as an invitation to lose the self in the frothing churn of the universe. How can I begin to write about art, about being an artist, from this place?

Rebecca Morris, Untitled (#18-20), 2020 (installation view, Rebecca Morris: 2001–2022, ICA LA).

Truth be told, Rebecca Morris’s Untitled (#18-20) isn’t my cup of tea. I find silver to be a cold color, like tin foil—it makes me think of sterile spaces (industrial kitchens, morgues). But silver is the color of moonlight, which points to the unconscious and to things that make us a little uncomfortable. So it’s interesting that now a painting I would have skipped over is indelibly imprinted on me. Through my son’s joy, which was (most likely) produced by the neurons in his brain reacting to the visual dissonance between the reflectivity of the silver and the soft playfulness of the blots and splatters, I was drawn into this painting with a different gaze. I’ve rediscovered the joy of looking at art because I get to look at it with my son, which makes me feel less alone. In a way, art has become more important to me, while all the trappings of the contemporary art world have become so much more tiresome, superfluous. After surviving the fourth trimester, I am no longer daunted by the melodramas of the art world, the glitzy fairs, the antics of the enfant terrible of the moment, the internet improprieties of aging art critics. It all feels so small—a cocktail party circus.

My son looks at art in an elemental, timeless way that predates Western art history. I was once friends with a white boy who later decided he was an artist, in the way trust-fund kids can just try out different identities until one sticks. We were talking about some facet of contemporary art, and I referenced ancient art—cave paintings, handheld sculptures carved from stone, the dawning of human creativity—and he said, “That’s not the same thing.” I was shocked; the idea that contemporary art was a separate endeavor from what our ancestors did for tens of thousands of years had never occurred to me. I saw art as intimately linked to what makes us human, to the deepest philosophical and spiritual questions regarding our purpose as sentient beings in the universe—questions we have been grappling with from the moment we were able to form complex language. And maybe even before. I think of Australopithecus holding the Makapansgat pebble in their hand, perhaps one of the first beings to encounter the self in an external object. A seed in our distant past that bore fruit and multiplied into all of human culture. What is art to basic white men? A sophisticated (expensive) joke, a smirk, a banana duct-taped to a wall? To have stakes and investments, to risk vulnerability—this is caring too much, a definite faux pas when I was in art school.

I am not advocating for a way of looking at art that is against intellectual inquiry. This was part of art’s appeal to me: the co-mingling of the intellect with the spirit and the body, and a gesture against the Cartesian split. But what I came to learn as an MFA student at a “conceptual art school” was that many artists are not interested in art’s spiritual or bodily potentials. For many, art seems to be either a dry performance of pseudo-intellectualism or a mechanical, iterative production of form (what they would call “an investigation”) onto which curators and gallerists could project whatever ideas held cultural currency at any given moment. It was a walling off of aesthetics from the messiness of life and, in particular, from a genuine engagement with politics or a belief that art could engender change, rather than just appropriate suffering into a consumable form.

When my son was around six months old, a power outage from an intense February rainstorm propelled me out of the apartment to seek refuge in Alicia Piller’s installation Within at Craft Contemporary. Piller’s practice weaves together storytelling, biology, and the cosmos, transforming everyday objects and materials into rich textural experiences. Within took advantage of the slightly awkward architecture of the museum’s mezzanine gallery, with sculptural gestures that connected the walls, floor, and low ceiling. Piller even incorporated an intrusive column into her composition. Entering the installation with my son, I felt like we were entering a sacred cave. He was quiet, curled up in his carrier. His mood matched the intimate tone of the show. It was as if the installation were an interconnected macroorganism growing out from the gallery’s architecture, and that upon our entry into this organism, our movement, our breath, and our heartbeats became part of it. I wondered: what could he see that my adult brain cannot? Or perhaps seeing is too limited a term. I imagine that for him this was a full-body experience, that with his enhanced infant perception, sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch merged. Maybe for him, the amalgamations of strings flowing through the space were like a melody, the colors eliciting a scent memory.

Under the auspices of the so-called art world, the gallerist, the museum curator, and even the art writer require an “Artist” who makes an “Artwork.” They require that these identities be fixed across time and space so that an Artist can acquire cultural capital and an Artwork can acquire monetary value. An Artist must be a stable factory for the Artwork commodity, providing the collector with a version of whatever they saw in a museum or art magazine to put on their wall or store in a Geneva Freeport warehouse. Piller created a powerful gesture against this logic by remixing past works to create Within, including those she had previously exhibited, challenging the capitalist idea of an art object that, once finished, becomes fixed. The gesture instead insists that an artwork can spontaneously change form and identity, and fuse with other objects to take on new meanings and relationships—that it could be like a lichen, transforming its very nature by incorporating the life it encounters. This choice to repurpose past work resists the idea of the Artist as exceptional genius and moves toward that of the Artist as a being constantly shifting in relationship to others. When we decenter ourselves, as both maker and viewer, and enter the liminal perception of an infant, the act of art-making becomes simultaneously deeply mysterious and mundane.

My son’s first encounter with art was with my own artwork. He liked to go on “gallery walks,” as my mother and husband called them, down our hallway. These walks often quelled his inexplicable episodes of crying. The first time I witnessed him become so deeply mesmerized by my work, I started crying. I felt seen in a way that the institutional and academic “art world” had denied me. I remember one of my college professors saying that the “persona” that made the artwork is different from who you are, and this is what allows you to receive critique without feeling personally hurt, because the critique isn’t about you. In one moment, my son’s gaze refuted that argument. From the very beginning, art has been about forging connections between selves, like fungal threads weaving together to form something greater and more profound than its individual parts. A network that asserts that we are all intimately connected, across time and space: a planetary macroorganism. To deny this intimacy is to invalidate the very core of why we create. It is to fragment us into parts, alienate us from our labor, deny us our power.

Made in L.A. 2023: Acts of Living, installation view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, October 1–December 31, 2023. Photo: Charles White.

When we visited last year’s Hammer biennial, Made in L.A. 2023: Acts of Living, we encountered an artwork called Con nuestras manos construimos deidades / With our hands we build deities by the collective AMBOS (Art Made Between Opposite Sides). A sculptural object and sound installation, the work had been crafted in community workshops in Tijuana and drew from AMBOS’s recorded stories of migrants and their families. Like Piller’s installation, the artwork resisted a fixed state of completion. Every component existed as art in its making, coming together, and eventual dissolution. The result was a materially seductive weaving together of ceramic and textile on a wire structure, forming an object that honored collective craft traditions while decentering authorship. AMBOS leaned further into this seduction by inviting the viewer to hold ceramic hands that were incorporated into the sculpture. For a toddler, this invitation was a real treat. My son relished the chance to finally touch something and spent the rest of the show reaching for art with his tiny fingers.

Recent research tells us that our bodies (and all forms of life) are symbiotic organisms rather than discrete “individuals,” what Merlin Sheldrake calls “symborgs” (after the cyborg). Our bodies contain living cells from the ancestors who birthed us (and if we have given birth, the cells of our descendants); they also contain more microbial cells than “human” cells. By making work that traverses the border and employs collective strategies, AMBOS simultaneously creates an Artist who is a symborg while undermining the foundational logic of “border security,” since the very notion of a border (of separateness in the body of the self and the body of the nation) is an absurdity. The collection of hands reaching out from the artwork and the invitation to hold them drew me back to those cave paintings in which the shadows of hands appear in a cloud of red pigment. That gesture says, “I am here” but also invites us to place our hands in the same spot, to feel thousands of years melt on the surface of stone—and maybe imagine a different future, borderless and full of deep connection, where our webs of interdependence with one another and with nature are our guiding force. In this future, we have finally accepted that the Western myth of the individual, walled off from everything, is a mirage that does not serve us or the continued existence of life on Earth.

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