Connecting the Threads: Petah Coyne and Rodarte

NMWA’s exhibition Rodarte celebrates the innovative American fashion house, founded by sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy. The show—open until February 10, 2019—is a survey of the designers’ visionary concepts, impeccable craftsmanship, and impact on the fashion industry. The dresses on view share visual appeal and many common threads with works in NMWA’s collection. From technique to theme, dive into five innovative works by artists at NMWA in this series, “Connecting the Threads.”

Eclectic Experimentation

Contemporary American sculptor and photographer Petah Coyne (b.1953) is critically acclaimed for her use of unconventional materials in her poetic pieces. Coyne renders human hair, scrap metal, wax, taxidermy, mud, chicken-wire, velvet, and more into haunting works with incredible emotional range. “I gather materials everywhere I go,” she has said. “Materials are a language.”

In their early collections, Rodarte drew acclaim for their use of unconventional materials that fused the dressmaking and art-making processes. Layering metallic ribbons, eyelash yarn, wire, chainmail tube, leather, Swarovski crystals, silk tulle, and more, their works upended conventional fashion practices by letting their material choice determine each silhouette.

Petah Coyne, Untitled #781, 1994; Wax, plastic, cloth and steel, 62 x 35 x 44 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in Honor of the Artist; © Petah Coyne, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Petah Coyne, Untitled #781, 1994; Wax, plastic, cloth and steel, 62 x 35 x 44 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in Honor of the Artist; © Petah Coyne, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Petah Coyne, Untitled #781, 1994; Wax, plastic, cloth and steel, 62 x 35 x 44 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in Honor of the Artist; © Petah Coyne, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York; Photo by Emily Haight

Petah Coyne, Untitled #781, 1994; Wax, plastic, cloth and steel, 62 x 35 x 44 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in Honor of the Artist; © Petah Coyne, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York; Photo by Emily Haight

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Masters of Craft

Her complex and layered sculptures require Coyne to do it all: she sews, she waxes and wires flowers, she paints, she manipulates wire, and she learned a Victorian method for making jewelry out of human hair. Coyne even worked with a chemist to “patent an archival wax formula that she uses in melted form, like a pigment. It has become her signature.” This is seen in Coyne’s Untitled #781 (1994), part of NMWA’s collection (not currently on view).

Rodarte’s early works also reveal a rapid command of their craft. Entirely self-taught, the Mulleavys mastered one technique after another, skillfully combining them in subsequent collections. Their approach to design is dictated by the textural qualities of their fabrics and driven by process and materiality.

Embodying Contradictions

At the heart of Coyne’s work is dissonance—an exploration of the fine lines between lushness and decay, beauty and grotesqueness. In Untitled #781, the pink-and-white sculpture alludes to a tutu, a birthday cake, or a party dress—symbols of girlhood and innocence—but it also appears to be curdling before the viewer’s eye. The piece seems to float, but is actually quite heavy, constructed over a wire-and-steel core. Throughout her work, Coyne thumbs these fine lines while also exploring the larger theme of life and loss at the core of her creations.

The Mulleavys are also interested in juxtaposing ideas in their collections. Through a complex layering of techniques that simultaneously build and destroy the materials, they transform their works into hybrid creations—both perfect and ruined. “We are attracted to imperfection and to beauty and chaos,” Kate Mulleavy has said. This dissonance has surfaced in many Rodarte designs, including their work for the costumes in the film Black Swan. “We were inspired by the idea of transformation, specifically the dichotomy between perfection and decay.”

—Alicia Gregory is assistant editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Mixed Media Majesty: Petah Coyne

In celebration of NMWA’s 30th anniversary, and inspired by the museum’s focus on contemporary women artists as catalysts for change, Revival illuminates how women working in sculpture, photography, and video use spectacle and scale for expressive effect.

Installation view of Petah Coyne’s Untitled #781 (1994); Photo: Yassine El Mansouri

Installation view of Petah Coyne’s Untitled #781 (1994); Photo: Yassine El Mansouri

Petah Coyne (b. 1953, Oklahoma City)

Called the “queen of mixed media,” Petah Coyne creates attention-grabbing sculptural works and photographs. Examples of both are on view in Revival. Her sculptures incorporate unusual materials like wax, sand, silk flowers, and taxidermy animals. Coyne’s massive forms are often seen suspended from the ceiling or snaking up gallery walls. She breathes new life into objects that may not otherwise be used, and incorporates obscured forms of the human body. Coyne spends years with each piece, and her creative process is as mysterious to her as the works themselves appear to viewers.

The Artist’s Voice:

“When material seems devoid of life, of possibility, I want even more to make something of it. I have an obsessive attraction to these kinds of materials. They are functionless yet carry all sorts of associations and memories.”—Petah Coyne, interview with Carrie Pryzbilla

“All of my pieces seem fragile. But that is deceiving, because they’re all begun with steel understructures. Yet I want each one to look incredibly delicate and to have that feminine sense of appearing soft and seductive. But as any number of women have shown, we have an internal strength and drive that is hard to fathom.”—Petah Coyne, interview in Sculpture Magazine

Installation view of Petah Coyne’s Untitled #1287 (Tati) (2009); Photo: Yassine El Mansouri

Revival Highlight:

Revival features sculptural and photographic work by Coyne that can evoke a range of emotions. Her photograph Untitled #885 (Saucer Baby) (1997) evokes feelings of playfulness, like the child in the pool, but also has a haunting quality. The intrigue and extravagance of the layers of wax and other media in her large-scale works Untitled #1287 (Tati) (2009) and Untitled #781 (1994) jog memories and form new associations in the viewer’s mind.

Untitled #1287 (Tati) features a taxidermy goose diving into a swirl of deep purple velvet and wax-dipped silk flowers. Coyne’s use of a stuffed bird and fake flowers recall associations with the past-life of “dead” objects. Lush and dramatic, Coyne’s work presents a spectacle that grabs and holds the viewer’s gaze.

Visit the museum and explore Revival, on view through September 10, 2017.

—Meghan Masius was the spring 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Petah Coyne

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Petah Coyne (b. 1953), whose work is on view at NMWA.

Petah Coyne (b.1953)

Petah Coyne, Untitled #781, 1994; Wax, plastic, cloth, and steel, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist; © Petah Coyne, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York

Petah Coyne, Untitled #781, 1994; Wax, plastic, cloth, and steel, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist; © Petah Coyne, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York

1. Multitalented Maven

Although she is known for her sculptures, Coyne double-majored in photography and printmaking at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Coyne reconnected with photography while traveling. Using handmade pinhole cameras, she creates abstract photographs focusing on subjects’ movements rather than their forms.

2. It’s Personal

Coyne’s personal experiences influence her work, but she also leaves them open to interpretation. When confronted with her sculptures, viewers often compare them to layer cakes, wedding gowns, chandeliers, overstated summer hats, bird cages, and more. What does her work evoke for you?

3. Little Women

Coyne views her sculptures as extensions of herself, and refers to them as “my girls.”

coyne-galleries

Untitled #781 in NMWA’s galleries

4. Sparking Interest

For her first wax work, Coyne constructed a hat for a friend using hot glue, wire, and candles. When she lit the candles, the glue ignited and the hat went up in flames!

5. Inspiring Company

Untitled #781 hangs in NMWA’s third floor sculpture gallery. When Coyne started working, she was inspired by two other artists who suspended large works from the ceiling: Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois.

—Ashley Harris is assistant educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Victorian Decadence & Visual Decay

Polly Morgan’s Systemic Inflammation is a striking artwork in Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015. Featuring small yellow and orange birds rising from a tethered position atop a charred metal cage, this work exemplifies the way that the exhibition addresses modern society’s complex relationship with the environment.

Morgan spoke about her work during Member Day at the museum. A literature student, Morgan never intended to become an artist. Unsatisfied with decorative taxidermy options for her home, Morgan decided to make a work herself. She trained with a Scottish taxidermist and adopted the scientific process as an untapped contemporary art medium.

Left: Polly Morgan, Systemic Inflammation, 2010; Taxidermy and steel, 51 1/8 x 44 1/2 x 44 1/2 in.; Private Collection, London; Photography by Tessa Angus, Right: Systemic Inflammation (detail), Photograph by Laura Hoffman

Left: Polly Morgan, Systemic Inflammation, 2010; Taxidermy and steel, 51 1/8 x 44 1/2 x 44 1/2 in.; Private Collection, London; Photography by Tessa Angus, Right: Systemic Inflammation (detail), Photography by Laura Hoffman

Morgan is absorbed by the idea that humans, “as earth-bound creatures,” constantly attempt to push the limits of flight. Her use of birds and focus on wings highlight her fascination. Morgan also draws heavily from Victorian imagery—as seen in her works containing large ornate cages and glass terrariums. Systemic Inflammation pays homage to a drawing of a Victorian flying machine. affixed with a delicate bouquet of birds and evocative of a rising phoenix.

The use of dead animals in art immediately alludes to themes of death—but Morgan’s objective is not fully focused on death. She sees the triumph of life and discusses how terrifying the fight for life can be versus the peaceful state of death.

Departing from smaller works like Still Birth (Red), Morgan attempted to “command more space, become less ornamental and more monumental.” Her focus became more about juxtaposition and finding new ways to view nature. Her most recent work creates abstract forms from the bodies of snakes—resulting in a surprising and new type of sculpture.

Petah Coyne, Untitled (#781), 1994; Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist; © Petah Coyne, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York

Petah Coyne, Untitled (#781), 1994; Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist; © Petah Coyne, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York

Another work in NMWA’s collection connects visually to Morgan’s art. Petah Coyne’s Untitled #781 is an immense wax sculpture—both incredibly foreboding and lush with excess. It seems to grow and decay before the viewer. The sugary white and pastel pink of the work do not immediately recall Coyne’s darker works. Untitled #781 is part of a series about the experience of being a woman. It references the beautiful and fanciful expectations Coyne had as a young girl. The work is both feminine and sexual in nature, reminiscent of a cake or a wedding dress. It is a work fit for a modern Marie Antoinette.

Coyne’s art is influenced by literature, personal memories, Catholic theology, and baroque sculpture.

The macabre beauty of Coyne’s art brings a Victorian flair—similar to that found in Morgan’s art—to her incredibly modern oeuvre. Coyne changes her medium constantly, using taxidermy animals and dead fish in other works.

Petah Coyne and Polly Morgan are influenced by the art of Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse. Both artists bring forth otherworldly creations through extremely labor and time intensive processes. The results are stunning works of art which connect to nature and have a monumental presence.

Visit the museum to see Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015 through September 13, 2015 and watch Polly Morgan’s gallery talk to learn more about the artist.

—Brittany Fiocca is the education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Petah Coyne: From Dickens to Dutch Still-life Painting

Disturbingly alluring, Petah Coyne’s Untitled #781 certainly packs a visual punch. The wax-work evokes a plethora of associations, both pleasant and disconcerting. Viewers may be surprised to learn, however, that Victorian novels and vanitas still-life paintings are among Coyne’s artistic references.

Petah Coyne, Untitled (#781), 1994; Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist; © Petah Coyne, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York

Petah Coyne, Untitled (#781), 1994; Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist; © Petah Coyne, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York

Upon closer observation, visitors can detect references to still-life painting in Coyne’s work. While “still-life” can refer to widely varied arrangements of inanimate objects, 17th-century Dutch still-lifes particularly appealed to Coyne—the genre was tremendously popular at that time, incorporating elaborate displays of wealth and excess. As masterful representations of the rich textures of exotic imports, still lifes epitomized sensory delight and prosperity. Images of Venetian glass, Chinese porcelain, and exotic flora often crowded these canvases.

Coyne’s contemporary work, although a different medium, similarly overwhelms the senses. Extravagant and festive, Untitled #781 is part of a series of sculptures resembling frosted confections, ornate chandeliers, and frilly dresses. Like still-life, it embodies the Victorian adage “Nothing succeeds like excess.”

A Danish still life in NMWA's collection: Rachel Ruysch, Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge, ca. 1745; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

A Dutch still life in NMWA’s collection: Rachel Ruysch, Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge, ca. 1745; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

The grandeur of Coyne’s sculpture is not its only quality reminiscent of still-life painting. Both also incorporate spiritual symbolism. Religious iconography was forbidden in the Dutch Reformed Protestant Church, prompting artists to disguise religious symbols in their paintings. (Fish commonly symbolized Christ and butterflies represented resurrection.) Coyne’s use of dripping candle-wax references her Catholic upbringing and time spent in votive-lit churches. Her sculpture’s resemblance to a lace-drenched wedding dress may also allude to religious accoutrements of marriage.

Raw with white accretions and mossy appendages, the sculpture has a striking quality of decay. Coyne’s work symbolizes the transience of life. In a similar vein, vanitas still-lifes referenced human mortality through depictions of skulls, clocks, and melting candles in addition to wilting flowers and half-peeled fruits.

Captivated with the concept of deterioration over time, Coyne has stated, “I love Charles Dickens’s Miss Havisham, who was left at the altar. Time stopped for her… She lived in that bridal dress, withered like grave clothing.” Coyne is “not interested in the fresh, new bride…I’m much more interested in being past your prime.” The artist refers to her own bride-like waxworks as “the parties afterward, the residue that’s left.”  It’s not about what’s fresh and new: there’s beauty in the excess, too.

Petah Coyne explores the tensions between lushness and decay, beauty and decadence, and life and death. When you look at Untitled #781, what other images come to mind?

—Emily Haight is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.