Before moving to Florida in 2019, I spent 4 years teaching abroad in Italy and Spain. Because of my past years living in those heavily catholic countries, one main culture shock I had was seeing how predominant the iconography of the Virgin Mary is. There were statues in most homes, on every wall, and even a huge one looking over me in my bed in my host family’s house (for the record, I didn’t place it there).
No matter where you went in both Italy and Spain, there is no denial that you’ll run into the Madonna every couple of blocks…whether it be in a church, art Muesum, or even a cafe.
My personal upbringing is from a mixed religious household, or rather we weren’t religious at all. My mother is jewish and my father is southern baptist. I don’t personally identify with a religion however I do honor my jewish heritage. Being from Texas, I grew up seeing a lot of crosses and baby Jesus but never really saw depictions of the Madonna like I saw in Europe.
As a non-catholic, I felt like that maternal symbol was much more comforting to me than the religious iconography that I saw in Texas. .
One important aspect I noticed was the artistic depiction of an exposed breast of the Virgin. I thought it was so interesting how in a religious setting, this type of nudity was permitted, while all viewers in the church were forced to cover shoulders to remain modest.
Exposed breasts are rendered in a non-sexual way, symbolizing what is understood as the natural love of a mother. However, without the connotation of the religious reference and a present child, the woman is sexualized.
For my own work, I really thought about this dichotomy. Why are women’s breasts sexualized when they serve such a primal function? And what about women who do not ever want to breastfeed or even rear a child? Or if they never want to expose their breasts for anyone? Are they selfish for keeping it away from both babies and the male gaze? Who do breasts really belong to if they aren’t being used as a functional object?
I create these figures with unnatural and surreal exposed breasts, so that the viewer questions if the breasts are for them, or if the breasts are even attached to the covered body at all. By exposing the breasts and sexualizing these women, they exist in a nonbinary space between the virgin/whore dichotomy, where if there is a baby Jesus, she is the Virgin, and if not, then she is sexualized.