Director’s Desk: Built to Order

At the National Museum of Women in the Arts, we regularly rotate our collection to spark new thematic connections. This is an essential part of our curatorial philosophy. My final post in this six-part series explores the theme “Built to Order.” Read about our other themes in the posts “Family Matters,” “Rebels with a Cause,” “Space Explorers,” “The Great Outdoors,” and “Roots to Routes.”

This photograph documents an abandoned military structure at Greenham Common, a former Royal Air Force station in Berkshire, England. Once a site conveying military strength, the scene captured by the artists offers a different perspective—one of decay and abandonment. The photograph’s otherworldly glow highlights the empty interior of the space.

Jane Wilson; Louise Wilson, Silo: Gamma, 1999 (printed 2007); Chromogenic color print, 63 x 106 in.; NMWA, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection

The artists in “Built to Order” investigate human intervention in the natural world, considering the impact of structures, cities, and societies. Sculptors explore the expressive potential of building materials, forming evocative arrangements of wood, rubber, and metal. Photographers focus on the splendor and scale of public spaces and the psychological tension inherent in secret or abandoned places.

Gallery Highlights:

One of the most influential sculptors of the 20th century, Louise Nevelson (1899–1988) imbued scrap wood with majestic properties. Inspired by Cubist art, she began making assemblages in the 1940s, painting them a single solid color. In White Column (from Dawn’s Wedding Feast) (1959), the artist references an architectural design element in a chapel. Although Nevelson often worked with black painted wood, her choice of white for this sculpture signaled a shift in perspective, referencing the color traditionally associated with matrimony and connecting the work more broadly to ethereal space.

The largest sculpture in our collection is Acid Rain (2001) by Chakaia Booker (b. 1953). Repurposing discarded tires, Booker slices, twists, weaves, and rivets them into radical new forms, converting industrial debris into art objects. She says, Acid Rain symbolizes both the destruction and the creative possibilities of our interaction with the environment.”

Louise Nevelson White Column

Louise Nevelson, White Column (from Dawn's Wedding Feast), 1959; Painted wood, 110 x 15 1/2 x 12 1/2 in.; NMWA, Gift of an anonymous donor; © 2012 Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Right Society (ARS), New York

acid rain

Chakaia Booker, Acid Rain, 2001; Rubber tires and wood, 120 x 240 x 36 in.; NMWA, Museum purchase: Members' Acquisition Fund; © Chakaia Booker

Frida Baranek, "Untitled" 1991, iron, 43 x 39 x 75 in.; 1994.3

Frida Baranek, Untitled, 1991; Iron, 44 x 75 x 46 in.; NMWA: The Lois Pollard Price Acquisition Fund; © Frida Baranek / Galeria Raquel Arnaud, © Frida Baranek

Sculptures by Brazilian artist Frida Baranek (b. 1961) often fool the eye. Untitled (1991) appears from a distance to comprise natural, lightweight materials, but it is actually made from iron and weighs nearly 100 pounds. Despite this weight, Baranek’s structure appears surprisingly delicate. Similarly to Booker, she uses recycled metal to create objects that appear to come from the natural world—her work calls attention to issues of environmentalism, urbanization, and industrialization.

Twin sisters Jane and Louise Wilson (b. 1967) are known for haunting video installations and photographs of deserted architectural spaces, particularly those representing institutional power. Silo: Gamma (1999; printed 2007) documents an abandoned military structure at Greenham Common, a former Royal Air Force station in Berkshire, England. Once a site conveying military strength, the scene captured by the artists offers a different perspective—one of decay and abandonment. The photograph’s otherworldly glow highlights the empty interior of the space. The Wilsons, and many other artists on view in this section of our galleries, demonstrate that women excel as both makers of complex forms and interpreters of built spaces.

—Susan Fisher Sterling is the Alice West Director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

More than Meets the Eye: Surprising Materials

Several of the artists featured in NMWA’s collection galleries create works that seem to be at odds with their materials. This discrepancy goes to the heart of the viewing experience, revealing the duplicity of the work while also calling into question the audience’s assumptions concerning the depicted forms. In creating a paradox between subject and material, these artists seek to uncover the tensions inherent in artistic representation.

Sharon Core, Single Rose, 1997; Chromogenic color print; 14 x 13 inches; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; © Sharon Core, Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery; Photograph by Lee Stalsworth

Sharon Core, Single Rose, 1997; Chromogenic color print; 14 x 13 inches; National
Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Heather and Tony Podesta Collection,
Washington, D.C.; © Sharon Core, Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery; Photograph by Lee Stalsworth

Sharon Core’s culinary interests led her to craft her photographic series “Thiebauds.” From 2003 to 2004, Core re-created Wayne Thiebaud’s vivid, pastel still-life paintings with her own baked and hand-decorated dessert dishes. An earlier work in NMWA’s collection, Single Rose (1997), explores the distinction between delicacies and delicacy. In this photograph, a rose blooms against a tightly cropped pink background. A closer look reveals that the crumpled petals seem to be slices of meat. With this revelation, Core forces viewers to re-contextualize what they see. She substitutes the image of an elegant blossom with a parody of the rose’s associations of natural beauty. Her juxtaposition of visual truth against physical authenticity calls into question assumptions about equating representation with reality. Although meat exists in nature, as do roses, the viewer’s clashing associations frame the image as an artificial construction. Core’s visual deception reveals the contradiction in these associations.

Frida Baranek, untitled, 1991; Iron, 44 x 75 x 46 in.; NMWA; Museum purchase: The Lois Pollard Price Acquisition Fund

At first glance, Frida Baranek’s untitled sculpture (1991) conjures images of a bird’s nest. Only when viewers approach do they realize that what seems to be a tangle of straw is actually carefully constructed from iron wires and rods. Although the sculpture’s form appears lightweight and organic, it is heavy and industrial. Baranek is interested in using her art to comment on environmental issues in her native Brazil and around the world. Baranek’s sculptures demonstrate that even industrial debris can have meaning if reused and remade.

Marisa Tellería-Díez, Getting Wet, 1999; Fiberglass, hydrostone, and enamel, 16 x 13 x 14 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Tony Podesta Collection; © Marisa Tellería-Díez

Marisa Tellería-Díez invites contradiction in her sculpture Getting Wet (1999). Interested in visitor perception, Tellería-Díez explores the relationship between a work’s physical reality and what she calls its “perceptual presence”—which she describes as “a presence that points not only to what’s there but also to what’s not.” While Getting Wet resembles cushy stools, closer inspection shows that its soft curves are carved from rigid materials. Shattering the correlation between the visual and the kinesthetic, Tellería-Díez draws viewers in. Perhaps meant as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the title, the bottom of the two “cushions” retain a light blue gloss, an imitation of wetness that is just as illusory as the work’s hard plaster bodies.

Interested in experiencing this visual trickery firsthand? Visit the museum to see all three works in NMWA’s third floor galleries.

—Xiaoxiao Meng was the summer 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.