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Breast in Show

Francesca Fuchs boldly takes on an oh-so-uncool sentimental subject: her nursing baby

The round head of an infant meets the curve of a breast in Francesca Fuchs's new paintings at Texas Gallery. Called "MOM," the show presents scenes familiar to many parents, including Fuchs, a mother of two. Sometimes when artists become mothers, they seek to reflect that experience in their work. The personal is always tricky to pull off -- even with experiences far less emotional and life-changing than giving birth. Some of the worst-case scenarios of motherhood-inspired art end in womblike raku ceramics. Thankfully, Fuchs's paintings are a best-case scenario. Her works depict babies nursing, but their stripped-down and abstracted images are about as far as you can get from a La Leche League promotional brochure.

Fuchs filled the main gallery with six seven- by ten-foot paintings, their images closely cropped and dominated by the head of the infant. The paintings originate from digital photos that Fuchs manipulates; the images are cropped and the subjects simplified and pared down into flat shapes in solid colors.

Fuchs paints the heads in solid colors that range from peachy to rosy pink, their features delineated by hard-edged lines and shapes in muted tones. Their faces are attached to a sliver of reddish nipple and an arc of pale breast. The scene is a universally sentimental one: mother and child.

Sentiment is a factor for Fuchs, but her paintings are successful because she also views her subjects objectively. In works like Baby 2 (2003), the image really becomes about formal issues. The rounded shapes of the baby's head and the mother's breast are set against a butter-yellow background. They're framed by the irregular shape of a blanket in the palest blue in the lower-left corner of the painting, and the muted orange of a T-shirt pushed up for nursing in the opposite corner. Fuchs tones down her colors so that they all have essentially the same value. There's hardly any contrast. If it weren't for the crispness of her taped-off and painted lines, you'd think you were looking through a soft-focus lens.

While the colors are soft and intimate, the scale of the paintings is imposing. When you stand close to them, the images break down and you become absorbed in expanses of paint. In Baby 1 (2004), squiggly organic lines in the middle of a sea of pink indicate a baby's ear. In Baby 3 (2004), faint, zebralike stripes indicate hair.

It's a satisfying show, but the size and number of similar images makes you wish it contained a couple fewer paintings. And when you look at Baby 7 (2004), a small 12- by 17-inch painting in the front gallery, you wonder about the large scale of the other works. There are arguments to be made for both: You don't lose the image when you stand close to the small work, but you do gain a sense of intimacy.

In her artist's statement, Fuchs talks about how, while breast-feeding, mothers "look at their baby's heads for hours studying the curve of the ear, the line of the hair." In her paintings, Fuchs is blending parental fascination with artistic fascination. The mother in her might be lovingly staring at her baby's ear, but the artist in her is clinically breaking it down into lines, shapes and color.

The paintings are a bold endeavor in many ways. Painting pictures of nursing babies reeks of oh-so-uncool sentimentality. But by making them huge -- whether they have to be or not -- Fuchs is throwing the work in the face of eye-rollers. And by making them tightly crafted visual objects, she's flexing her muscle as a smart and skilled painter. Fuchs hasn't sacrificed the emotional content, either. In looking at the works, you realize the amount of hair steadily increases from Baby 1 to Baby 7. The paintings are subtly recording the child's development. In her statement, Fuchs also talks about seeking an art experience where "emotional content is filtered through the brain." She definitely has achieved that in "MOM."

 
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