1 Running with M.E.
Figure this: a child looking simultaneously forward and back, oversized ear cocked down and back, oriented to what is clearly in the distance, but too far away for us to see. Out of this child’s head grows a house, fully formed, replete with windows and a roof. For clothing, the child sports only underwear; for gender, in effect, androgyny. A trumpet-shaped vessel exudes rays of light or sound that spotlight the child, hailing the house-headed being into its cavernous space. That trumpet-like vessel narrows into something of an umbilical cord, which coils and extends back beyond the vessel, in the opposite direction of the child. Carrying the body of another, smaller child, this child’s body moves forward, listens backwards but displays two faces: one peeks over her shoulder, as if following the ear backwards; the other peers fully forward, in profile, looking straight ahead into the rays that envelop the two small bodies in motion.
Minneapolis-based artist Amy DiGennaro has figured just such a scene, a sketch whose spatial depth and temporal cruxes invite us to figure it further. This image, suggestively titled Running with M.E., is composed with graphite on paper. But its densely drawn lines and curves offer us an image of childhood that is anything but black and white. We are confronted [End Page 1]
with a child inhabiting two spaces and times, bearing the weight of a house on her head and the weight of a child in her arms. The image is a vision of childhood and its discontents: a moving set of contradictions mobilized through a child looking forward and looking back, while being pulled and propelled into the space emanating from the vessel before her. Her fear is as unmistakable as her tenacity and as palpable as her sense of responsibility. She is at once vulnerable and fierce. I refer to the child here as “she,” for that is the how she ultimately unfolds in DiGennaro’s art. This child-figure in Running with M.E. is an autobiographically inspired human-object form that DiGennaro calls “Househead”: a femininely-gendered portmanteau of freighted domesticity and psychic space exteriorized. In other incarnations in DiGennaro’s art (featured in this issue and on its cover), Househead also straddles not just multiple temporalities but the very different lifeworlds of adulthood and childhood. Running with M.E. is one of many complex images (many of which feature the Househead figure) that grace the border of an enrooted epic world, a large-scale work of art that DiGennaro has called Landscape with the Story of .... This border is storied by scenes that exist sometimes within, sometimes alongside, Hans-Bols-esque [End Page 2] medallions or emblems and embroider the 96″ × 120″ work, the heart of which is an elaborate map of roots and routes. Collectively, the multiple scenes that comprise Landscape are unsettling, otherworldly (without being utopian) enmeshments of childlife and its big emotional landscape imagined backwards and forward: two-faced.
Like the authors in this special issue on “Childhood and Its Discontents,” DiGennaro is interested in depictions of children who are at once of, in, and beyond the worlds they inhabit. Indeed the figure of Househead herself is both of and beyond herself. M.E. may literally be the child in her arms in the image above, but the initials me suggest perhaps that the Househead may also be carrying her own self in those arms, daemon-like (the telltale head of the child being carried is obscured). Househead’s nightmarish world, for instance, echoes the Gothic worlds Steven Bruhm discusses in his consideration of “The Counterfeit Child.” DiGennaro’s figure of childhood also dramatizes the kind of “unjoinings” that resist the [End Page 3] full narrative thrust of childhood development in Thurschwell’s readings of Sula and The Member of the Wedding...