Birthday Series 

essay by Michael Stamm  

2021


Does anyone remember being born? I imagine not—I certainly don’t. And what a sad fact, that one of the most universal human experiences might be lost to us all. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud idealizes birth as a brief point of total oneness of the world. Unpleasure and pain, our first and by no means last unwelcome feelings, introduce the border between ourselves and the external world. In the end, to be a person is to be “a shrunken residue of a much more inclusive—indeed, an all embracing—feeling which corresponded to an intimate bond between the ego and the world around it.”


To me, it is that specific fantasy of recalling a feeling of oneness that animates this body of work. In Bridget’s paintings, birth at once generates everything and is generated by everything. From indeterminate canals emerge clenched, spasmodic faces, gasping for air, belonging to baby and mother alike. But sexual anatomies do not stop at birthing the eyes, ears, mouths, and hands from which they themselves are playfully indistinguishable. What is in one painting the undulating prismatic mound of a baby’s head crowning is in another the furrowed brow of a sullen teen emerging from beneath a puffy coat. Bridget’s technical facility, fearless and chaotic, makes anything possible: an array of bubbles become eyes and nose, a droopy green hound-dog brandishes a vaginal tongue, psychedelic vines entangle the edges of an inexact face. One painting even imagines the birth canal as a bleary-eyed stoner playing cat’s cradle.


At the same time, the coursing, demented fun of Bridget’s paintings often points outward. Playfully correcting the patriarchal literalism of Courbet’s The Origin of the World, her work unchains familiar dyads—the vagina and femaleness, femaleness and motherhood, motherhood and childbirth. And while she builds on the radical formalism of Georgia O’Keefe’s vaginal flowers, Bridget embraces a more contemporary idea of the body as a near-totally unstable and immaterial signifier. Having a gendered body is probably a political condition, Bridget’s paintings suggest, but it is definitely a weird one.


Knowing Bridget, however, I think she might specify (in fact, she did specify) that she does not purposefully undermine traditional presentations or allegories of gender and sex. Her work’s tendency towards destabilization is descriptive rather than critical. In Bridget’s world, the pillars that prop up antiquated ideas don’t need to be toppled because they’re already made of marshmallow. For her, uncertainty and weirdness define being alive so totally that any approximation of lived experience requires evoking its blobby, protean characteristics.


As such, the erratic anatomical patterns that might serve as scaffolding for any “content” fall away as soon as the viewer attempts to overlay them with meaning. Take one example: the lower left and right hand quadrants of the paintings do often seem to house a pair of globular hands… until they turn into furry purple paws behind which a cowardly cat shivers… or grooved cascades of tears emitted by a forlorn cartoon grandmother… or are they actually the fins of two contorting trouts brushing the droplets away? The paintings are always one absurdist step away from becoming something—an exasperated mom, a monkey shading his eyes with his hands, an art deco dog’s butt. To understand one of Bridget’s paintings is to delight in completing the exquisite corpse of a narrative it has passed one’s way. Her play begets yours.


Flailing appendages, windswept strands of hair, pleading eyes and trembling pouts accentuate the painting’s metaphysical quivering, yes, but they also contour unexpected expressions of fear, sadness, shock, bashfulness. Even the painting’s most far-fetched hypothesis of a character elicits sympathy and emits warmth. Something about them sustains a real feeling. Although it may not be my story to relay, Bridget did tell me, in an aside at the end of a long meandering studio visit, that this series was begun in a storage room turned studio in her father’s house, a room that held all her mother’s old belongings after she prematurely passed away. It was, in fact, right after her own birthday. In response to my mounting interest, she contested that she “thought it didn’t matter.”


It does and it doesn’t. Paintings make room for everyone’s secrets to gestate into thoughts and ideas, not just those belonging to the artist. Indeed, the recurring hands, according to Bridget, can belong not just to the person holding the baby but to the baby as well. “Perhaps these paintings stemmed from a very real desire to be held by [her mother]”, Bridget speculates, but each painting, she insists, is equally meant to “hold itself.” That painting is a “constantly circulating loop [in which] you create a thing, that thing creates you and on and on,” as Bridget describes it, resonates with Freud’s idealization of that which is “all embracing,” or capable of returning to a less traumatized state of safely touching and being all things, of universal, reciprocal holding.


There is a fine distinction to be made. In this body of work, analogizing birth and its wondrous array of attendant shapes, movements and sensations doesn’t necessarily confer the redemptive embrace of the universal. Notably, contemporary visions of gender and queer identity certainly echo Bridget’s assertion that the “feeling [of wanting] to procreate” is not universal. Rather, it is “the desire to be held,” that can be more safely and inclusively espoused as a common experience. We are “held” in the world so variously: by our mothers, fathers, by our families, by love, by friendship, by political solidarity. Perhaps most often we hold ourselves: in the face of the unknown, we instrumentalize our senses and intellects to illuminate and familiarize new worlds, and when that familiarity becomes tedious, our chaotic capacity for play introduces new possibilities of being.


To sentimentalize, as is possible, that making a good painting is like holding a baby in that they both entail love and trust, initiates the starting point of a metaphor that unfolds wondrously. Bridget’s paintings, being good, hold themselves out for us, a profusion of varied propositions for ways of being that extend not just beyond the orderly confines of the human body but across species, material, time. And in that way, it is not insignificant that Bridget has trusted me, an indelicate, childless, cisgender gay man, to write about this body of work: to wonder and learn about anatomic, sexual, and emotional realms essentially inaccessible to me; to pretend I can understand the psychic world of any other being without completely wringing out its inner life; to relate parentally, for a moment, to the churning materiality of the universe and its infinite arrangements. It is an act of trust so radically generous as to be deranged. And yet, it doesn’t surprise me. Because it is exactly what her paintings do too. For me and for everyone, together.