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The Humor of M. Louise Stanley's Paintings "The Functional Family"
During a visit to the Oakland Museum of California, I came upon a hilarious set of paintings by artist M. Louise Stanley. The triptych (a set of three individual paintings that are meant to be shown together), is titled The Functional Family (after Velazquez). Each painting in the triptych depicts ideal scenarios of family life from three different perspectives: the kids', the mom's and the dad's. Stanley appropriated Velazquez' painting Las Meninas (pictured right).
Las Meninas (Spanish for The Maids of Honour), painted in 1656, depicts Margaret Theresa of Spain (center), the daughter of King Philip IV of Spain, surrounded by her entourage - the maids of honour, her bodyguard, as well as two dwarfs and the artist Velazquez himself.
The humor in Stanley's triptych begins with the marriage of the Spanish attire, furnishings and salon style of décor from the same period as Velazquez Las Meninas, with modern commodities.
The Kids' Version of a Functional Family
In Stanley's The Kids' Version, we find the kids on the couch with video controllers in hand, the television's glare lighting up their content faces. While the young boy has his right hand on the controller, his left hand reaches back for the money his father is giving him. The boy does this in a manner without so much as a "thank you," as if he is owed this money. In the background, the mother carries a tray, holding two drinks, and what looks to be sandwiches and stacks of cookies, clearly for the kids.
Dad's Version of a Functional Family
In Stanley's Dad's Version, the dad has the couch to himself, as he watches television, likely a sport's game, indicated by the green baseball cap he is wearing. In his right hand is a can of beer and in his right, a bag of chips - every man's ideal dinner, right? While dad is enjoying the game, the kids are sitting at the table, diligently doing their schoolwork. The mom, once again in the background, is washing and drying dishes with a notably unhappy expression.
Mom's Version of a Functional Family
Stanley's Mom's Version, which has been placed last in the triptych, is what I consider the "meat" of the three pieces. In her biography, M. Louise Stanley writes, "Through involvement in the emerging Women's Artist movement, my paintings explored modern-day romance, gender issues and sexual politics in the art world." In mom's idea of a functional family, we find the mom lounging on the sofa, enjoying a leisurely read, while in the background, the father and son are washing and drying the dishes. In the right foreground, the daughter is on hands and knees as she seems to be enthralled by whatever she is studying under the microscope.
In the first two paintings, the Kids' Version and Dad's Version, Stanley acknowledges the expectations that have been placed on the role of women - to be the caretaker of both the home and family, never in the foreground, rather always putting herself last.
When we get to Mom's Version, however, Stanley is indeed exploring a modern-day romance and bringing gender issues to light. We all laugh at the idea of the man and son doing the housework, while the mother sits back and reads, and the daughter takes deep interest in the sciences. But why do we laugh? Mom's Version of a functional family is every woman's dream, and while in 2013 there are a few households who disdain gender-normative roles, unfortunately the prior two versions hold precedent. The humor in Stanley's triptych is both bitter and truthful. "As an art student I wanted to make paintings people would gag and cry in front of, until I witnessed two people doubled-up laughing in front of my work. I discovered that humor was a tool that allowed me to speak on parallel planes," Stanley states. The Functional Family (after Velazquez), does just that, by highlighting what are actually the dysfunctional societal norms of gender roles. Humor allows viewers to approach the subject matter without feeling attacked, but also being forced to face our position on the functional family.
See it for yourself.
If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, take the opportunity to see Stanley's triptych in person at the Oakland Museum of California. Although I haven't been there recently, The Functional Family (after Velazquez) is part of OMCA's art collection, so there is a good chance it will be on display.