Flights and Frights of Fancy

With over one thousand unique works, NMWA has one of the nation’s most extensive collections of artists’ books. Selections are always on display in the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center, but curators often collaborate so that book arts also join other art objects in a special exhibition. Ten artists’ books in Super Natural reveal that the book is an effective medium for addressing the exhibition’s central question: “What is natural?”

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Kerry Miller, Britain’s Birds and Their Nests, Mixed media hand-cut assemblage, 11 x 20 1/2 x 2 3/8 in.; On loan from Kerry Miller; Photo credit: Laura Hoffman

Two of these featured artists’ books are Britain’s Birds and Their Nests (2015) by Kerry Miller, and four and twenty black birds (2004–07) by Carol Todaro. These entrancing works are linked not only by their medium and their focus on nature, but by their specific focus on birds.

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Detail of Britain’s Birds and Their Nests

Birds have a long history of intricate symbolism in literature and art. Depending on the species and context, birds can stand for a plethora of ideas ranging from resurrection to greed.

Because of their ability to soar to heights that mankind cannot naturally reach, birds commonly represent freedom.

Bursting from the confines of a textbook’s binding, the winged creatures in Britain’s Birds and Their Nests embody carefree liberation. The viewer can almost hear the cacophonous sounds issuing from their open beaks.

Kerry Miller extracts the text in a natural history book to reveal a three-dimensional riot of colorful birds. Miller states that the purpose of her work is to release images from books, and here she successfully delivers the birds from the constraints of cold, scientific fact. She allows her birds to take ownership over text-based analyses of their biology and behavior.

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Carol Todaro, four and twenty blackbirds; Table and ink drawing on paper; On loan from the artist; Photo credit: Laura Hoffman

While Miller’s birds seem liberated, the blackbird in Carol Todaro’s large-scale book work appears to be irreversibly trapped within the graphite-laden pages. This blackbird’s disembodied wings are laid flat upon a black stool while being spread thin over translucent pages. The title of the piece, as well as the dark hue of the graphite, alludes to a haunting nursery rhyme that details the killing of many blackbirds for human consumption.

The eerie tone of Todaro’s book contrasts with Miller’s blithe one. Both allow birds to interact with their book medium, but one compares the motion of a wing to the opening of a page, and the other shows birds flying from a book’s leather binding. In works by these artists, the bird can remain a symbol of freedom or, alternatively, have its wings clipped.

—Christy Slobogin was the summer publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Merian’s Daughters: Monika E. de Vries Gohlke, Amy Lamb, and Janaina Tschäpe

Join NMWA on September 3, when contemporary artists engage in conversation about their “artistic foremother” Maria Sibylla Merian. During Merian’s Daughters, Super Natural artists Amy Lamb, Janaina Tschäpe, and Monika E. de Vries Gohlke will discuss their disparate ways of dealing with nature in their work. The three artists credit groundbreaking 17th-century artist and scientist Merian, whose work is also on view in Super Natural, as a major influence on their performances, photography, videos, and prints.

Amy Lamb, Purple Datura, 2015; Digital pigment print of photograph, 34 x 34 in.; Promised gift of the artist and Steven Scott Gallery, Baltimore; © 2015 Amy Lamb, all rights reserved

Amy Lamb, Purple Datura, 2015; Digital pigment print of photograph, 34 x 34 in.; Promised gift of the artist and Steven Scott Gallery, Baltimore; © 2015 Amy Lamb, all rights reserved

Maria Sibylla Merian revolutionized botany and zoology through her studies of flora and fauna. At age 52, Merian and her younger daughter embarked on a dangerous trip to the Dutch colony of Suriname, in South America, without a male companion. She spent two years studying and drawing the indigenous animals and plants. Her lavishly illustrated Insects of Surinam established her international reputation.

Through studying insects, Merian paved the way for centuries of artist-scientists, including Amy Lamb, who cites Merian as a major influence on her career. A cellular biologist-turned-artist, Lamb admires women like Merian for their ability to cross over to the art world.

Lamb’s photographs emphasize the formal properties of her subjects—the color of a leaf, the ruffled edges of a petal, or the reflective qualities of a dew drop. Her photographs recall the painstaking detail found in Merian’s scientific drawings. While Merian emphasized biological detail to foster better scientific understanding, Lamb’s large-scale images elevate the minutiae of her flowers to monumental status.

Janaina Tschäpe, Moais from “100 Little Deaths,” 2002; Chromogenic color print, 31 x 47 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

Janaina Tschäpe, Moais from “100 Little Deaths,” 2002; Chromogenic color print, 31 x 47 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

Talented and independent, Merian set an example for women like Janaina Tschäpe. Merian ventured beyond 17th-century societal norms by traveling and studying in a foreign country with only her daughter as a companion. Tschäpe also traveled to remote locales for the benefit of her art. She created her “100 Little Deaths” series by photographing her body in natural environments around the world—from Capri to Angkor Wat.

Left: Monika E. de Vries Gohlke, “Caiman” After Maria Sibylla Merian and Daughters, 2012; Etching and aquatint, hand colored, on paper, 11 1/4 x 15 1/4 in.; NMWA, Gift of the artist; Right: Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 69 from Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam, 2nd Ed., 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 14 1/4 x 20 1/2 in.; NNMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Left: Monika E. de Vries Gohlke, “Caiman” After Maria Sibylla Merian and Daughters, 2012; Etching and aquatint, hand colored, on paper, 11 1/4 x 15 1/4 in.; NMWA, Gift of the artist; Right: Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 69 from Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam, 2nd Ed., 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 14 1/4 x 20 1/2 in.; NNMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Merian’s influence is evident in Monika E. de Vries Gohlke’s oeuvre. One of Gohlke’s prints, “Caiman” After Maria Sibylla Merian and Daughters, is similar to Merian’s composition showing a caiman struggling with a snake, which is on view next to Gohlke’s drawing. The French phrase “L’homage”—visible on the ground below the fighting figures—underscores the relevance of Merian’s preceding work. Spiders and butterflies along the top of the drawing allude to Merian’s renowned artistic and scientific work on insects. Merian’s illustrations cover an adjacent wall within the same gallery as Gohlke’s Caiman.

Hear from the artists in person at NMWA about their work and Merian’s persistent influence—register today through the online calendar.

—Christy Slobogin was the summer publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Patricia Piccinini

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Patricia Piccinini, whose work is currently on view in Super Natural.

Patricia Piccinini (b. 1965)

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 Laura Hoffman; 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 Laura Hoffman

1. Push/Pull

Australian artist Patricia Piccinini constructs unexpected amalgamations. Her sculptures combine human and beastly features and transform vehicle parts into wild animals. The Young Family (2002–3) and The Stags (2008), both in NMWA’s collection, have been known to simultaneously allure and repel visitors.

2. Material Source

Piccinini explores the tension between nature and manufacture through her subjects and mediums. She typically employs a combination of natural and synthetic materials, blurring the lines between these two realms. The Young Family includes an unsettling mix of human hair and skin-like silicone developed for special effects in movies.

3. Source Material

The artist draws inspiration from sources as varied as anatomical models, botanical illustrations, photographs of newborn animals, consumer and car culture, and works by the 16th-century Italian painter Caravaggio.

Patricia Piccinini, The Young Family, 2002-3, Silicon acrylic, human hair, leather, timber; 36 x 65 x 50 in; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

Patricia Piccinini, The Young Family, 2002-3, Silicon, acrylic, human hair, leather, timber, 36 x 65 x 50 in; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

4. Artist Statement

The Young Family . . . [represents] a mother creature with her babies,” Piccinini says. “I imagine this creature to be bred for organ transplants. . . . We are trying to do [this] with pigs, so I gave her some pig-like features. That is the purpose humanity has chosen for her . . . [yet she] wants to exist for [her own] sake.”

5. Family Ties

The Stags is one of four works Piccinini created that use vehicle parts to evoke animal forms and the intimate relationships among these creatures. Taken as a series, the viewer empathizes with and imagines the narrative of this tight family unit.

—Addie Gayoso is associate educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

 

Louise Bourgeois: By the Book

The exhibition catalogue Louise Bourgeois. Structures of Existence: The Cells (Prestel Publishing and Haus der Kunst, 2015) showcases the artist’s work creating Cells, a series of architectural sculptures that she worked on for twenty years, from 1986 through 2008.

These embody the belief of Bourgeois (1911–2010) that “space does not exist, it is just a metaphor for the structure of our existences.” The Cells are enclosures or cage forms, often incorporating mirrors, dummy-like figures, or staircases leading nowhere—nuanced and provocative spatial metaphors for her own personal history. The book compiles essays and conversations revealing Bourgeois’s influences and the way that her childhood experiences, coupled with recondite concepts from her early works, form the Cells series.

The book’s sections provide a comprehensive perspective on how Bourgeois’s life and memories influenced the Cells. Texts include conversations with Bourgeois’s long-time assistant Jerry Gorovoy, essays by renowned scholars, a short biography, and selected statements and quotations from the artist herself.

Several essays focus on a single Cell, such as the elaborate and cage-like Passage Dangereux (1997), and explain how the piece relates to Bourgeois’s oeuvre and biography. Other contributors focus on the abstract meanings behind the emotion-laden sculptural constructions. These complex emotions are rooted in Bourgeois’s difficult childhood, her aggression toward her philandering father, and the constant tension between her desires to remember the past and to forget it. Gorovoy states, “The Cells tell stories and are definitely autobiographical, but the emotions are universal.”

Exhibition connection:

Louise Bourgeois, Hairy Spider, 2001; Drypoint on paper, 19 x 16 in.; On loan from the Holladay Collection; Art © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA New York; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Louise Bourgeois, Hairy Spider, 2001; Drypoint on paper, 19 x 16 in.; On loan from the Holladay Collection; Art © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA New York; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Currently on view at NMWA in Super Natural, Louise Bourgeois’s drypoint print Hairy Spider depicts a spider, a common motif in the artist’s work.

Bourgeois associated spiders with patience, and she often likened them to her mother, whom she saw as patient to a fault when it came to handling her father’s adultery with her live-in nanny.

To capture her mother’s presence in painful memories from her childhood, Bourgeois included spiders in some of the Cells featured in the exhibition catalogue—the book reveals that Bourgeois often felt frustrated that her patient mother calmly tolerated this infidelity. The drypoint in Super Natural connects back to Bourgeois’s oft-revisited themes of spiders, patience, and motherhood.

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

Caution: Beware the Boundaries of Beasties

Patricia Piccinini’s The Stags is currently on view in NMWA’s summer exhibition Super Natural. In sleek and shimmering fiberglass, the two large sculptural pieces of The Stags combine characteristics of Vespas and fighting deer. Although Piccinini has created other works with auto-inspired elements, many of the Australian artist’s works depart from this style. Piccinini’s other sculptures typically use silicon and hair to create humanoid creatures with convincingly realistic bodies.

Together, these two distinct styles tell the story of mankind’s evolving scientific creations in both the “biosphere” and the “autosphere.” These different mediums both allow Piccinini to explore the complex intersection of natural and artificial elements—evoking wonder as well as fear at their possibly detrimental consequences.

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 3/4 x 72 x 40 1/4 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

Piccinini’s automotive aesthetic incorporates biomorphic curves, contours, and dips to construct animal-automobile hybrids. She constructs creatures ranging from stags to Cyclepups and Truck Babies—what she imagines baby Vespas or semi-trucks would look like if vehicles could reproduce. Because these objects seem cute and harmless, the viewer doesn’t associate them with the negative characteristics of automobiles, inherent in industry and pollution. In a quickly advancing scientific world, technology becomes more sentient and advanced. Piccinini’s art cautions against unbridled enthusiasm for technological innovation, while also reveling in the wonders of nature.

Her humanoid sculptures also explore the consequences of progress—this time in the field of genetic manipulation. Sculptures like Big Mother and The Young Family convey what future scientists could create by combining human and animal genes. Because of their exceptionally realistic and somewhat human appearance, these sculptures elicit emotional responses.

The backstories of these works are full of trauma and confusion. Piccinini ponders where these fabricated sentient creatures would fit into the world if they became realities. She doubts that society’s ability to accept new and different creatures could keep pace with science’s ability to create them.

Piccinini’s art explores boundaries between the realms of human and machine as well as human and animal. She emphasizes the rapid evolution of technologically and genetically modified “things.” Are humans able to coexist and accept creations as creatures? Does society have enough foresight into the possible consequences of introducing hybrids? The questions Piccinini raises are acutely applicable to today’s world. She posits these questions with her technological and biological work, leaving the answers open to uncertainty and contemplation.

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

Learn more about Super Natural, on view through September 13, 2015.

5 Fast Facts: Elisabetta Gut

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Elisabetta Gut, whose work is currently on view in NMWA’s galleries.

Elisabetta Gut (b.1934)

1. Who Knew?

Gut began her artistic career as a painter, but in the 1960s, she started to search for a new form of expression. Inspired by avant-garde artists’ use of experimental materials, she created her first book-object in 1964.

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Elisabetta Gut’s works (left to right): Book in a Cage, 1981; Gift of the artist; Libro-Seme (Seed-Book), 1983; Gift of the artist; Photographs by Lee Stalsworth

2. Lost & Found

Whether trapping a French-Italian dictionary in a cage or “growing” music from a seed, Gut often incorporates found objects in her work. Each object’s unique history is incorporated into a new context.

3. What’s in a Name?

Though Gut’s artist books encourage close looking rather than traditional reading, words still play a role. Her titles provide insight into the inspiration, materials, or thoughts behind a work.

Elisabetta Gut, The Firebird (From Stravinksy), 1985; Gift of H.G. Spencer in honor of Lorraine Grace - See more at: http://nmwa.org/works/firebird-stravinsky#sthash.GnLWHaCp.dpuf

Elisabetta Gut, The Firebird (From Stravinksy), 1985; Gift of H.G. Spencer in honor of Lorraine Grace

4. Art Begets Art

Gut’s work frequently draws inspiration from her favorite works of art, music, or poetry. The Firebird, for example, visually interprets music from Igor Stravinsky’s famous ballet.

5. Book as Art

Artists’ books blur the lines between visual art and literary art. Works by Elisabetta Gut are currently on view in both the exhibition Super Natural and the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center. See if you can find both works during your next visit!

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

Flowers, Fruit, and Fatality

“What is natural?” is the intriguing question surrounding Super Natural. Two of the exhibition’s artists, Rachel Ruysch and Sam Taylor-Johnson, answer this query through their respective works of art. Ruysch’s painted still life and Taylor-Johnson’s video Still Life suggest that decay, death, and the passage of time are the most essential and inevitable processes in our natural environment.

Society has traditionally aligned women with nature because both can be pretty, graceful, and demure. Many of the women artists in Super Natural, including 17th-century artist Rachel Ruysch, challenge these characterizations.

Rachel Ruysch, Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge, ca. 1680s; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Rachel Ruysch, Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies, and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge, ca. 1680s; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Ruysch and later artists chose to infuse their art with the scientific, strange, and abject elements of nature.

Ruysch’s Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies, and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge seems to depict a thriving bouquet of flowers. However, upon closer examination the arrangement contains fatal signs of decay.

The composition’s central pink rose wilts, showing the beginning stages of decomposition. Deep purple flowers, half-hidden at the rear of the bouquet, also droop. Their shadowy hue and sagging posture foreshadow the bleak future in store for their upright counterparts. Holes in the bouquet’s large green leaves also suggest impending deterioration. These subtle elements of decay allude to the passage of time and the subsequent demise of the plants.

Even the still life’s title reminds viewers that these natural organisms will not last forever. The bouquet stands in an urn, which sits upon a stone ledge—neither setting encourages growth or life.

While Ruysch’s painting subtly alludes to decomposition, Taylor-Johnson’s video shines a spotlight on the process. In her video, a plate of fruit disintegrates over several weeks. The time-lapse video compresses the breakdown to just over three minutes. As the decay progresses, the fruits seem to sigh and exhale their final breaths slowly, collapsing into an unrecognizable pile of rot.

Like Ruysch, Taylor-Johnson does not shy away from the foul qualities of natural decay. Unlike Ruysch, Taylor-Johnson has access to modern resources and technology that allow her to depict decomposition over an extended period of time.

Even without Taylor-Johnson’s technology, Ruysch does a masterful job of alluding to the unavoidable fate of her flowers. Both artists imbue their portraits of nature with the most natural life process of all: death. These works, as well as the other Super Natural works by Audrey Niffenegger, Janaina Tschäpe, Maria Sibylla Merian, and Maggie Foskett give “death” as the simple yet poignant answer to “What is natural?”

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

Learn more about Super Natural, on view through September 13, 2015.

Women with Wanderlust

During the press preview for Super Natural, NMWA Chief Curator Kathryn Wat stressed one fact above all others about featured artist Maria Sibylla Merian: this woman was radical. Not only did she divorce her husband—something that was socially taboo in the 17th century—but she traveled to Suriname accompanied only by her daughter.

Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 18 from Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam, 2nd Ed., 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 20 1/2 x 14 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 18 from Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam, 2nd Ed., 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 20 1/2 x 14 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Merian had grown bored with the dry and lifeless specimens of exotic insects that were available for study in the Dutch provinces. She wanted to see, study, and draw the creatures from life.

Even though her Dutch homeland was more liberal than other European countries, women in Merian’s society were restricted to sheltered traveling experiences such as the Grand Tour or family holidays. Sojourns outside of Europe almost never happened for women. It was certainly not conventional to go overseas without a male travel companion. Yet Merian did exactly that, refusing to bend to the social mores that controlled female exploration so strictly. In 1699, at age 52, the artist-naturalist embarked on her journey to South America—to Suriname, then a Dutch colony—to follow her passion for studying and depicting insect metamorphoses.

When one examines Janaina Tschäpe’s contemporary photographs, also on view in Super Natural, there is no immediate visual connection to Merian’s work other than the exhibition’s broad theme of female interaction with nature. However, Tschäpe cites Merian as a major artistic and feminist influence. For example, both artists focus on death and decay—Tschäpe depicts her own demise in many natural environments and Merian shows the constant and natural cycle of life and death.

Super Natural visitors explore works from Janaina Tschäpe’s "100 Little Deaths" series

Super Natural visitors explore works from Janaina Tschäpe’s “100 Little Deaths” series; Photograph: Laura Hoffman

Notably, the artistic visions of both Merian and Tschäpe required travel. Tschäpe has stated that her “100 Little Deaths” series visually explains how every person leaves a small piece of him- or herself in each new place they visit. From the intense detail and minute observation that Merian uses in her scientific prints, it is clear to any Super Natural visitor that Merian left parts of herself with the natural world in Suriname as well. Pioneering women like Merian opened the gates for future generations of women, such as Tschäpe, to use travel to follow their passions—artistic or otherwise.

Throughout history, men have been considered the more adventurous sex. Roving artists such as Maria Sibylla Merian and Janaina Tschäpe show that the realm of discovery and exploration does not solely belong to men. They, too, got their hands dirty, showed bravery in the face of treacherous or difficult circumstances, and eschewed their comfort zones in favor of travel and new experiences. These two women—working nearly 300 years apart—followed their artistic inspirations to explore their deep personal connections to nature.

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

Learn more about Super Natural, on view through September 13, 2015.

5 Fast Facts: Rachel Ruysch

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750), whose work will be on view at NMWA in Super Natural, June 5–September 13, 2015.

Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750)

1. Affinities
Ruysch’s maternal great-grandfather, grandfather, great-uncle, and several uncles pursued creative professions. Ruysch, like American portraitist Sarah Miriam Peale (1800–1885), came from a long line of artists. Coincidentally, Ruysch and Peale both had sisters named Anna, who were also painters.

Rachel Ruysch, Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge, ca. 1745; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Rachel Ruysch, Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge, ca. 1745; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

2. Weird Science
Rachel’s father, Dr. Frederik Ruysch, specialized in women’s reproductive health. Additionally, he revolutionized preservation and embalming techniques, collected and displayed an array of botanical and anatomical specimens, and operated an early museum of curiosities. Rachel helped compose his dioramas, decorating the eclectic, macabre tableaux with shells, flowers, and lace.

3. Rosy Outlook
The Ruysch family crest sports a blue rose with five petals. Most of the artist’s still lifes include prominently displayed roses, likely a nod to her family name and history.

4. Retiring Nature?
Ruysch and her father committed their lives to studying and depicting aspects of the natural world. Passionate about their work, neither elected to retire. Ruysch’s pieces date from 1679, when her painting career blossomed at age 15, to a few years before her death at the ripe age of 86.

5. Giga-What?
NMWA collaborated with the Google Cultural Institute to usher Ruysch into the 21st century. Thanks to gigapixel technology, Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies, and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge can be seen in minute detail online.

Catch a glimpse of this piece in person in Super Natural!

—Adrienne Gayoso is associate educator 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.