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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

May 26, 1996|Kristine McKenna

MOTHER By Judy Olausen (Penguin Studio: $24.95). Have you ever harbored a secret desire to be the dictator of a small South American country? If you have, then motherhood might be for you. Your word will be law, you'll inspire terror in those around you (those short citizens referred to as children) and you'll be remembered, if only by a few, as a mythical figure.

Just kidding, although not entirely. Is there any instance where power and its transfer is more of a struggle than in the relationship between mother and child? I doubt it, and if any of this is striking a chord in you, you'll probably love this book.

The book, a series of wildly irreverent photographs depicting a stereotypical housewife lost in the outer reaches of homemaking, seems at a glance to be a savage sendup of the institution of motherhood. In fact, Olausen is exploring the subject from a different perspective entirely and intends that this series of photographs serve as a cautionary tale.

Olausen perceives "mother" to be a victim of an archetype that had been in place for centuries before reaching critical mass in America in the 1950s. A destructive manifestation of the maternal archetype that pivots on martyrdom, 1950s mom was a self-effacing robot whose sole function was maintaining the family home and providing whatever succor anyone demanded. Hers was a life of sacrifice and, needless to say, it left those she served riddled with feelings of guilt and rage; guilt because she gave so much, rage because--who asked her to?!

Using her 74-year-old mother, Vivian Olausen, as her model, Olausen works in a manner evocative of artist William Wegman in that she disguises the volatile content of her work in a glossy veneer of humor. Like Wegman's long-suffering Weimaraners, Vivian Olausen is an incredibly cooperative model who cheerfully subjects herself to all manner of indignity. Surrounded by kitsch period props, we see her impersonate a coffee table, a doormat and a dead deer strapped to the roof of a car. She scrubs a toilet, drags a cross through the supermarket, wears a crown of thorns as she cooks and walks on water.

Olausen explains in her introductory text that she "wanted younger women to see that we didn't always have the options we have now." Her photographs suggest that our options have indeed changed; however, a quick perusal of any newsstand suggests that the pressures on women to conform to a social ideal of perfection are as crushing today as they were in the '50s.

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