Jeannette Montgomery Barron’s childhood home was very formal, designed after a mansion in Vézelay, France. “My Mother’s Clothes,” her exhibition of photographs at Jackson Fine Art, offers a glimpse, through a Peachtree Battle window, of that world and an era now gone.
We are invited into the closet of one Eleanor Morgan Montgomery Atuk, the artist’s singularly stylish mother. The photos reflect the life of a woman whose social axis spun along Coca-Cola royalty, one who depended on her personal clothing adviser at Atlanta’s Rich’s department store to keep her au courant when Bill Blass, whom she counted as a personal friend, was not available. But, lest one make assumptions based on these facts, Montgomery Barron is quick to clarify.
”She was not a socialite; that’s the wrong word,” the artist says. “She was a woman who used her influence to get things done.”
Montgomery Barron began photographing her mother’s clothing and personal effects as an act of memory. As she struggled to accept the degenerative effects of Alzheimer’s disease upon her mother, she noted that clothes from her mother’s past offered a brief return to the woman she had once known. Just the right dress, shoe or accessory would unlock her mother’s memories: when it was worn, what the occasion was, who had been talking (or not) to whom. After Montgomery Atuk passed away and the nurses dressed her in a favorite Oscar de la Renta gown that matched the beautiful burgundy hearse sent to take her to the funeral home, the artist continued photographing her mother’s clothing collection.
Absent the human figure, “My Mother’s Clothes” is a series of portraits of the artist’s mother. Here, a plush Neiman Marcus Mongolian lamb fur vest is set against a blue-and-white toile ground. There, spread out on a carpet of green grass, a full-length fur coat. In another, a shimmer of gray Oscar de la Renta ruffles hangs before an American flag. Against a riot of Pucci patterning, a day planner is opened to a week in June 1979 packed with travel plans, balls and debuts, and an admonishment to call Ted Turner by 10 — underlined, lest the writer forget. Although no day planner could have rectified the forgetting that was to eventually overtake Montgomery Atuk, the clothes that connected her to her past were the same ones that connected the artist to her mother after she was gone.
Using objects as stand-ins for people — or indeed, even entire scenes — is an established means of rendering memory in artwork, particularly in contemporary photography. Miyako Ishiuchi’s photos of her mother’s personal effects — also undertaken as a means of processing her parent’s death — were shown at the 2005 Venice Biennale. Tanya Marcuse and Milagro de la Torre also use objects once worn to convey their absent sitters.
Art historian Juan Antonio Molina refers to the residual aura conveyed in once-handled objects as “an imaginary reconstruction of the absent subject.” Thus, the viewer is offered — in an orange minidress floating before zebra stripes — one woman’s brief flirtation with couture pop culture in the midst of a nation burdened by racial tensions and an unpopular war.
“My Mother’s Clothes” frames both the memory and the identity of Montgomery Atuk with lush, and occasionally puzzlingly selected, backdrops. The graphic juxtapositions of some works here visually echo the arresting arrangements of Seydou Keita’s portrait photography. Although some of the patterned papers and fabrics were plucked from Montgomery Atuk’s closets and dressers, others are the result of the artist’s exhaustive hunts, sometimes to rather far-flung places, chosen specifically to frame an object.
The artist says of her perpetually put-together, glamorously groomed mother: “She was all about more, more, more. I was always about less, less, less.” It should then come as no surprise that the background is where the artist feels most comfortable. It is also where she takes a bit of license and adds her own visual signature.
The designer concoctions framed by the artist-chosen backdrops are glossily attractive. But, as alluded to with subtlety and intricacy in Ishiuchi’s work, actual relationships with mothers tend to be more complex than these images suggest. The photos sparked my curiosity, raising many interesting questions about the mother-daughter relationship, but the images ultimately resist this line of inquiry. There is the slightest promise in this series that the viewer will be permitted a glimpse into something more surprising or profound, but “My Mother’s Clothes,” like any proper eulogy, evades the problematic and politely focuses instead on having something lovely to say.