Maternal Sheet (2017–ongoing), a photographic project by Lindley Warren Mickunas, slowly and edgily unfolds the fraught nature of familial intimacy. The series comprises black-and-white depictions of children, women, and men in intimate settings and poses. A multigenerational group, the protagonists form an extended family, with the children at the center. Often scantily clad and in the shadows, faces obscured or tense, the children’s bodies are both connected to the adults and dominated by them, evoking the power that adults hold over their vulnerable offspring.
Warren Mickunas’s pictures build in intensity as the series progresses and vacillate between tenderness and aggression. Many of the images are performative: a shirtless boy is held still by a male hand on one shoulder and a female one on the other; a woman reveals a bite mark on her chest; and two women fight on the floor, suggesting hostility, even violence, within the domestic sphere. These gestures are stilted and awkward, and the spare settings make them feel like they might be forensic depictions of past events. Interspersed among these photographs are still lifes laden with symbolism and a sense of foreboding: a rocking chair, usually a symbol of domestic comfort and soothing, stands starkly in a corner; a close-up of a chain lock on a door suggests the constraining, inescapable nature of family; a tree trunk marred by a dark substance alludes to a wound. Cumulatively these images hint that within the intimacy of family something sinister lurks.

The word sheet in the title evokes multiple associations—the sheet of a photographic print, or the sheet of a bed, a site of intimacy usually hidden from view under blankets, and one that we see in Warren Mickunas’s image of a baby with his back toward us looking at a second child obscured in darkness. A sheet is also defined as a broad stretch of something that is thin in comparison to its length and breadth—like the impact of a parent on a child’s life, perhaps, which is always pervasive, and sometimes inadequate, even adverse.

The maternal bond, in particular, emerges in potent images that suggest femininity, care, and cyclicity. A girl kneels behind a woman, twisting her long dark hair that mirrors her own, suggesting both adoration and the repetition and imprinting of habits and behaviors from mother to daughter. A naked woman breastfeeds her baby. In one image milk is forcefully being squeezed out of punctures in rubber gloves. A sequential image of a woman piling bricks upon her abdomen and then removing them suggests a ritual relating to fertility, and raises the questions: What is the psychological weight she carries? Can trauma be passed along generations through the womb?

In Maternal Sheet Warren Mickunas paints an unrelenting, complicated picture of the family ties that bind us, for better or worse. A powerful meditation on love and trauma, Maternal Sheet illuminates the fundamental poles intrinsic to human relationships—nurturing and neglect, tenderness and aggression, intimacy and distance.”
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Karen Irvine
Chief Curator and Deputy Director
Museum of Contemporary Photography