5 Questions with Dawn Holder

The fourth installment of NMWA’s biennial exhibition series, Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015 is presented by the museum and participating national and international outreach committees. The exhibition’s artists redefine the relationship between women, art, and nature. Associate Curator Virginia Treanor spoke with emerging and contemporary women artists featured in Organic Matters.

Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015
Artist: Dawn Holder
Nominating committee: Arkansas Committee / Consulting curator: Courtney Taylor, Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas

1. Organic Matters includes art that refers or responds to the natural world. How do you think your work, Monoculture, relates to the theme of nature?

Dawn Holder; Photo courtesy of C. S.

Dawn Holder; Photo courtesy of C. S. Carrier

I find the intersection of nature and culture to be fertile ground for artistic exploration. I am particularly interested in the way we cultivate, manicure, rearrange, and exploit the natural world.

The lawn, which I explore in Monoculture, is of particular interest to me because of its multivalent nature. It is a “natural space” in that it is comprised of plants and landforms, yet the lawn is a wholly artificial construct, a highly controlled space requiring labor, chemicals, and specialized equipment to maintain.

I am fascinated by suburban America’s desire to construct this hybrid artificial-natural landscape and what it signifies in terms of time and resources. I think the lawn is our culture’s fantasy version of the natural world.

2. Is this work representative of your oeuvre? How does Monoculture fit into your larger body of work?

For almost a decade, my work has explored the idea of landscape and domestic space through installation and sculpture. Aesthetically, my recent installations, such as Monoculture, have been influenced by the way Minimalist sculptures occupy space. Yet rather than being simplified, my work is highly detailed and engages surface as much as form. I align my practice to the repetitive and decorative craft tasks historically relegated to women, such as needlework. I think of my current studio explorations as combining horror vacui surface with minimal form, a Maximalist Minimalist approach. So far, Monoculture is definitely the most labor-intensive installation that I have created . . . . But the visual reward is worth it and I don’t see this aspect of my work changing.

Dawn Holder, Monoculture (detail), 2013; Porcelain, 2 1/2 x 92 x 176 in.; Courtesy of the artist

Dawn Holder, Monoculture (detail), 2013; Porcelain, 2 1/2 x 92 x 176 in.; Courtesy of the artist

3. As an artist, what is your most essential tool? Why?

My mind is my most essential tool, along with my hands, a bag of plaster, and maybe some random pointy objects . . . I could get by with a shish kabob skewer and old paring knife if I had to. Since my forms and materials change so much from project to project, the ability to brainstorm and solve problems has become an integral part of my creative process. Also, having the ability to push onward when mind and body are ready to give in becomes really important when making thousands of the same form. This perseverance pays off when I see all of the pieces massed together.

4. Who or what are your sources of inspiration and/or influence?

I read every day—books, essays, and articles about current events, social issues, the environment, pop culture, and art/craft theory. One idea I have been incredibly interested in lately is the necropastoral, a term explored at length by poet and critic Joyelle McSweeney. She states that the necropastoral is “a political-aesthetic zone in which the fact of mankind’s depredations cannot be separated from an experience of ‘nature’ which is poisoned, mutated, aberrant, spectacular, full of ill effects and affects.” Something about the forcefulness with which this idea recognizes and combines the devastating powers of the Anthropocene and the sublime forces of the wilderness strikes a chord with me.

5. What’s the last exhibition you saw that you had a strong reaction to?

I was recently in New York and had the chance to see Samara Golden’s The Flat Side of the Knife at PS1. This two-story installation depicts interconnected multiple levels which are variations of a domestic space, sparsely furnished with beds, plants, musical instruments, and other objects made from reflective insulation board. Mirrors and upside-down placement of objects further serve to confound the viewer, as do a number of misdirected staircases. I was enchanted by the way Golden’s installation plays with perception and dimensionality. The contrast of the aged, brick walls of the gallery space and Golden’s use of surface and material works to create an impossible, unreal, yet familiar space. The private nature of the setting also added to the unsettling and voyeuristic quality of the piece. I am attracted to work that creates an alternate space that I can project myself into, or even better, that I can momentarily lose myself in.

Frightful & Delightful: Summer Exhibitions

We are excited to announce that NMWA’s summer exhibitions, Super Natural and Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015, open tomorrow! Museum staff have been busy transforming the 2nd-floor galleries to display these flora-and-fauna-filled artworks by women.

NMWA exhibition team hang works while Patricia Piccinini’s Stags look on.

NMWA’s exhibition team hangs works while Patricia Piccinini’s Stags look on, Photograph: Laura Hoffman

Super Natural explores the works of both historical painters and naturalists alongside contemporary artists.

Historical works like Rachel Ruysch’s 17th-century still life are juxtaposed with contemporary works such as Sam Taylor-Johnson’s video of decaying fruit.

Upon walking into the galleries, the spotlit Stags, by Patricia Piccinini, compels viewers into the room to take a closer look at these sparring hybrid creatures.

One Super Natural gallery displays a variety of ingenious artists’ books together with Maria Sybilla Merian’s lavish illustrations of plants and insects. Not merely beautiful depictions of flowers, Merian’s prints portray insects’ life cycles, including a graphic depiction of a spider feasting on an ill-fated hummingbird. Super Natural subverts traditional notions of women as observers, showing them as inventive and risk-taking artists.

Gallery spaces are transformed for Super Natural

Gallery spaces are transformed for Super Natural, Photograph: Laura Hoffman

A plethora of photographs from Janaina Tschäpe’s “Little Deaths” series appears alongside Ana Mendieta’s “Volcano” series. Both artists’ work reflects their interest in manipulating scenes of nature with the human body.

NMWA’s committee-driven exhibition Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015 features living artists working with the subject of nature. 

Organic Matters presents 13 emerging or underrepresented artists from the states and countries in which the museum has outreach committees. These artists redefine the relationship between women, art, and nature.

A recurring theme in Organic Matters is the emphasis on humankind’s effect on the environment. Goldschmied and Chiari’s photograph harkens back to Monet’s waterlillies, but presents garbage-made-pretty lilies floating in a stream. Drawings by Jennifer Celio portray an unsettling view of nature in the not-too-distant future. Mimi Kato’s digital landscape explores the presence of mankind within urban green spaces.

Organic Matters artist Dawn Holder lays out individual squares of porcelain grass in Monoculture; Right, Organic Matters artist Rebecca Hutchinson assembles her multimedia installation Patterns of Nature, Photographs: Laura Hoffman

Large floor-based sculptures by contemporary artists Dawn Holder and Rebecca Hutchinson command visitors’ attention in the center of each Organic Matters gallery. Both artists came to the museum for the installation process.

Super Natural and Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015 are on view through September 13, 2015. Stop in for Free Community Day this Sunday and enjoy noon gallery talks every Wednesday!

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. 

Uncommon Ground: Summer Exhibitions at NMWA

What is natural? Porcelain grass lawns and anthropomorphic scooters may not be the first objects to come to mind, although they are likely to make a lasting impression. Visitors can explore sensational and surprising views of flora and fauna in NMWA’s summer exhibitions, Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015 and Super Natural, opening on June 5.

Dawn Holder, Monoculture (detail), 2013; Porcelain, 2 ½ x 92 x 176 in.; Courtesy of the artist; On view in Organic Matters

Dawn Holder, Monoculture (detail), 2013; Porcelain, 2 ½ x 92 x 176 in.; Courtesy of the artist; On view in Organic Matters

The latest installment of NMWA’s biennial exhibition series, Organic Matters explores the connections between nature, women, and art. In collaboration with 13 participating national and international outreach committees, this exhibition features contemporary artists working with the subject of nature.

Calling to mind entrenched associations of women with nature, Organic Matters opens a dialogue about traditional views. The artists recontextualize nature and redefine the relationships between women and nature. Their works are fanciful and sometimes frightful. They also reference modern society’s complex relationship with nature, ranging from concern for its future to fear of its power.

Through a delightfully diverse array of mediums, including photography, drawing, sculpture, and video, these artists capture nature in its most interesting forms. Rachel Sussman’s images documenting Earth’s oldest organisms (including a 9,500-year-old spruce tree) are as enchanting as Ysabel LeMay’s otherworldly ecosystems. From Polly Morgan’s creepy-cool birds to Lara Shipley’s ominous landscapes, these uninhibited works offer a fresh perspective on the natural world.

Patricia Piccinini, The Stags, 2008; Fiberglass, automotive paint, leather, steel, plastic, and rubber, 69 ¾ x 72 x 40 ¼ in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; Photograph by Graham Baring; On view in Super Natural

Patricia Piccinini, The Stags, 2008; Fiberglass, automotive paint, leather, steel, plastic, and rubber, 69 ¾ x 72 x 40 ¼ in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; Photograph by Graham Baring; On view in Super Natural

Giving context to Organic Matters, Super Natural juxtaposes historical artists’ works with photographs, books, and videos by contemporary artists. Featuring works by 25 artists, including Rachel Ruysch, Kiki Smith, and Sam Taylor-Johnson, Super Natural highlights the way that old mistresses’ interpretations of the natural world directly inspire artists today.

Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 18 from Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam, 2nd Ed., 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 20 ½ x 14 ¼ in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; On view in Super Natural

Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 18 from Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam, 2nd Ed., 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 20 ½ x 14 ¼ in.; NMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; On view in Super Natural

Remarkable prints by 17th-century artist-naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian depict insects she studied in South America, while contemporary prints, artist’s books, and sculptures feature spiders, reptiles, and hybrid creatures. The female form historically symbolized abstract ideas such as spring or the Earth. In response to these ideas, works by Janaina Tschäpe and Ana Mendieta include dramatic performances and interventions in the landscape in order to show a new vision of nature.

NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling says, “Both exhibitions demonstrate that women artists, historical and contemporary, are often adventurous, inventive and subversive when dealing with nature in their work.”

Don’t wait—plan your visit to see these wild works by women artists. Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015 and Super Natural are on view June 5–September 13, 2015.

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.