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2020 Portfolio Prize Runner-Up: Lindley Warren Mickunas

In haunting black-and-white photographs, Lindley Warren Mickunas investigates the complexities of the maternal bond.

By Cassidy Paul

Lindley Warren Mickunas, Mother and Daughter, 2017, from the series Maternal Sheet

We are all born of our mothers. This symbiotic relationship is fraught with complexities, yet it is instrumental to our very being. But what happens when the mother and child separate? Or when their relationship extends beyond what is healthy? For the past three years, Chicago-based artist Lindley Warren Mickunas has created a haunting investigation of the maternal bond—examining codependency, the violence placed on female bodies, and generational trauma in families.

Drawing from her childhood experiences, Warren Mickunas mixes together staged reenactments performed by nonrelatives alongside documentation of her family. The resulting series, Maternal Sheet, speaks to the complicated dynamics found within families, juxtaposing the ways comfort, trauma, and coldness all coexist. There is no single perspective, shifting between mother, child, parent, and the ominous, removed, viewer. For Warren Mickunas, addressing these complexities is vital. “I approach this series both as a woman who intends to someday be a mother, and as a daughter,” she explains. “I’m not only thinking about the way that motherhood and the maternal shape life, but also how these concepts are imbedded into my practice as a female artist. Every creative act that springs forth from me I view as an act of mothering.”

Intentionally blending the line between real and fabricated, Warren Mickunas’s images live in different states between past, dream, concept, and memory. Utilizing black and white alongside a harsh flash, the artist trades the intimacy often associated with family and motherhood for cold detachment. A child plays with her mother’s hair. Gloves filled with milk resemble an udder, squeezed harshly by a child that remains unseen. Figures of parents and children are clouded by shadows and haze. A single rocking chair sits poised in a corner, as if pulled from a horror film. Two opposing adult arms battle for a helpless child. Each frame has an almost atmospheric sense of tension, hinting at a darker presence lurking beyond that single moment.

Though Maternal Sheet started with Warren Mickunas’s personal history, she sees it as addressing a much larger experience. “I hope that the work can communicate the complexities within the home and the pressures placed on the traumatized family,” Warren Mickunas reflects, “but also the truth that we as humans, especially as children, possess an incredible resiliency and ability to adapt and cope with very challenging circumstances.”

Lindley Warren Mickunas, Milk, 2020, from the series Maternal Sheet

Lindley Warren Mickunas, Mouth, 2019, from the series Maternal Sheet

Lindley Warren Mickunas, Three Hands, 2019, from the series Maternal Sheet

Lindley Warren Mickunas, Rocking Chair, 2017, from the series Maternal Sheet

Lindley Warren Mickunas, Feeding, 2019, from the series Maternal Sheet

Lindley Warren Mickunas, Egg, 2018, from the series Maternal Sheet

Lindley Warren Mickunas is a Chicago-based photographer, editor, and curator. She is the founder of various publications, including The Ones We Love andThe Reservoir, a collective editorial project on the politics of image-making. Warren Mickunas is an MFA candidate in photography at Columbia College Chicago, and curatorial assistant at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago. Most recently, she was published in FotoFilmic’s JRNL 2 (guest edited by Rachel and Gregory Barker of STANLEY/BARKER) and exhibited by Der Greif at Berlin Photo Week.

Cassidy Paul is the digital editor at Aperture Foundation. All images courtesy the artist.

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