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.

Spotlight: Rachel Sussman

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.

Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015
Artist: Rachel Sussman
Nominating committee: Greater New York Committee / Consulting curators: Christiane Paul, Whitney Museum of American Art; Dana Miller, Whitney Museum of American Art

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Rachel Sussman at NMWA; Photo credit: Laura Hoffman

Rachel Sussman mixes art and science to spark reflection on the oldest living organisms on the planet. “It’s part art, it’s part science, and it’s part philosophy,” explains Sussman. Her conceptual photograph series “Oldest Living Things in the World” delves into “deep-time and long-term thinking.”

Although her subjects have survived for millennia, Sussman brings awareness to the fragility of their existence due to recent climate change and human encroachment.

Working with a team of biologists, Sussman traveled the globe in an attempt to record 30 organisms that have survived for 2,000 years or more. Not merely scientific documentation, Sussman’s photographs serve as portraits of individual organisms—each with their own kind of dignity and personality. Sussman shot her subjects using a Mamiya 7 II camera, which she has owned since 2004. She reveals, “It has been with me through the entire project and has been to every continent.”

Organic Matters includes three large-scale photographs from her series. La Llareta #0308-2B31 (2,000+ years old; Atacama Desert, Chile) is what Sussman calls the “poster child of the project.” These alien-like shrubs are related to parsley and carrots and are comprised of thousands of densely packed branches. Sussman photographed La Llareta at an elevation of 15,000 feet in an area of the Atacama Desert with no recorded rainfall in history.

Rachel Sussman, La Llareta #0308-2B31 (2,000+ years old; Atacama Desert, Chile), 2008; Archival pigment prints on photo rag paper, 44 x 54 in.; Courtesy of the artist

Rachel Sussman, La Llareta #0308-2B31 (2,000+ years old; Atacama Desert, Chile), 2008; Archival pigment prints on photo rag paper, 44 x 54 in.; Courtesy of the artist

Spruce Gran Picea #0909-11A07 (9,500 years old; Fulufjället, Sweden) portrays the oldest organism in on view in Organic Matters. As a clonal organism, the spruce tree grows genetically identical shoots. Sussman refers to the tree as “a portrait of climate change.” The mass of low-lying branches represents how the tree appeared for 9,500 years. Over the last 50 years, a spindly trunk has grown from its center—a climate-related anomaly.

Continuously engrossed in art and science collaborations, Sussman mentions Trevor Paglen’s space-proof photos, Ed Burtynsky’s environmental landscape work, and Henning Rogge’s reclaimed war landscapes as inspiring and thought-provoking. Because her subjects are located around the planet, yet they share the capacity to inspire viewers with their evocation of time, Sussman views her “Oldest Living Things” as something “that just transcends the things that divide us.”

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

Spotlight: Jiha Moon

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.

Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015
Artist: Jiha Moon
Nominating committee: Georgia Committee / Consulting curator: Michael Rooks, High Museum of Art

Jiha Moon at NMWA; Photo credit: Laura Hoffman

Jiha Moon at NMWA; Photo credit: Laura Hoffman

Jiha Moon is known for her blend of traditional materials and pop culture iconography. Like a “cartographer of cultures,” Moon is interested in creating images that can be read differently by people with different backgrounds. The Korean-born artist says, “Translating cultural incongruities is one of the most exciting and nerve-wracking experiences I have.”

Moon mixes nature and culture in Peach Mask I, Leia, and Immortal Dessert—all on view in Organic Matters. Each work incorporates the shape of a peach. A prominent symbol in the state of Georgia, the peach also represents happiness and longevity in Korean culture.

The works in Organic Matters are exemplary of Moon’s cross-cultural artistic style. In many of her works, Moon deconstructs and layers iconic images into uncharacteristic positions. Peach Mask I mixes acrylic forms together with calligraphic ink swirls. Upon closer examination, the viewer can find recognizable shapes—like those of the video-game characters Angry Birds. Through combining figurative elements and abstract, gestural strokes, Moon hopes to create kaleidoscopic works that are “somewhat familiar yet very strange at the same time.”

Jiha Moon, Peach Mask I, 2013; Ink and acrylic on Hanji paper, 38 x 38 1/2 in.; Courtesy of the artist

Jiha Moon, Peach Mask I, 2013; Ink and acrylic on Hanji paper, 38 x 38 1/2 in.; Courtesy of the artist

Although she was trained as a painter, she has also explored textiles and ceramics. Moon’s fascination with clay lies in its “long history connecting East and West. As an Asian American artist, this is such a rich area to explore and to research.” Two of her ceramic works are showcased in Organic Matters. Leia incorporates traditional colors found in Asian ceramics with Star Wars references. Similarly, Immortal Dessert melds a Cheshire cat, smiley face emoticons, and fortune cookies. All are common motifs for Moon. Fortune cookies—an American invention—are of particular interest to the artist as the “biggest misunderstanding of Asianness.”

Although her works use images from today’s culture, her materials are often traditional. She frequently uses Hanji, a Korean Mulberry paper. She said, “I buy a year’s supply when I visit Korea.”

In a gallery talk at the museum, Moon told visitors her influences are “where I travel, who I meet, and . . . things I see in nature.” She compares her surrealistic works to her life in the U.S., saying, “I always feel like I’m sort of in between places all the time and I try to find the beauty within that . . . Identity is something really complex and shifty and changeable and that type of thing is always present in my work.”

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant 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.

 

5 Questions with Mary Tsiongas

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: Mary Tsiongas
Nominating committee: New Mexico State Committee / Consulting curator: Lisa Tamiris Becker, UNM Art Museum

1. Organic Matters includes art that refers or responds to the natural world. How does your work The Mercurial Dog Anticipates Her relate to the theme?

Mary Tsiongas; Photo by Aziza Murray

Mary Tsiongas; Photo by Aziza Murray

My vision for this piece, which is part of a body of work called The Likenesses of Light, was to relate the interdependence of plants, animals, and humans to the interrelationships of art forms through contemporary media. The work is informed by early film history, and in The Mercurial Dog Anticipates Her, I used a botanical print by Edward Skeats (a little-known artist in the collection of the UNM Art Museum) as a backdrop or environment for the action to happen. The work shows a scenario in the desert that alludes to childhood fables and folklore but also our deep dependence on water and animals for survival. I evoke fables and folklore because as children this is one way we learn about nature; we learn that nature is animated, alive, wise, tricky, powerful, humbling, etc.

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

It is fairly representative of my most recent works. In the series “Vanish” and “The Likenesses of Light” I use paintings and drawings of landscapes/plants/animals by other artists as backdrops and then add or animate characters that manipulate the work in some form. The figures inhabit the paintings/drawings, erase them, blur them, and change them, alluding to our manipulation of and effect on our environment. The work also suggests the potential impermanence of new media and the durability of paintings. I was hoping for a playful dialogue with painting as an older tradition; it’s a frozen frame, a created moment in time, whereas video moves, connotes lapsed time, and is more ephemeral.

The piece that is in Organic Matters has a botanical drawing of a cactus as a backdrop and in the foreground I’ve added a figure of a girl and a coyote-like dog that appear to change and alter the cactus and thus the drawing. I am hoping the work tells a story of the interdependence of humans, animals and plants.

Mary Tsiongas, The Mercurial Dog Anticipates Her, 2013; LED monitor, 2-minute HD video loop, media player, and wooden frame, 33 x 24 x 4 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Richard Levy Gallery

Mary Tsiongas, The Mercurial Dog Anticipates Her, 2013; LED monitor, 2-minute HD video loop, media player, and wooden frame, 33 x 24 x 4 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Richard Levy Gallery

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

I do a lot of research for my work, or perhaps more appropriately “hunting” for information, images, objects that will spark the evolution and development of whatever I’m working on. So the computer is probably the most essential tool I use. But I also go to libraries and bookstores, and I walk in the desert to find this “information” as well.

I would also have to add a skill that is essential for me, and that is editing. Not just for video editing on my computer, editing is ultimately one of the most important skills an artist can have. You have to know what stays and what to get rid of or what doesn’t belong in the work.

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

In addition to my interest in folklore and metaphysics, I also have a background in science. I am currently reading (and sometimes rereading) Julian Barbour’s book The End of Time. It’s a book on the physics of time. Several years back I became very interested in “time” and how we understand it as humans. It evolved from an interest in trees and their immensely long lives; and in dendrochronology, the study of tree ring dating. I have been reading up on different ideas of time as much as I can. A few years back I saw David Wilson’s stereoscopic video Book of Wisdom and Lies at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in L.A. I was amazed how it seemed to represent the idea that time and space are linked; it’s also absolutely gorgeous. It has been another great inspiration.

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

Last fall I was part of an exhibition called Late Harvest curated by JoAnne Northrup at the Nevada Museum of Art. It was a remarkable exhibition that juxtaposed contemporary works, some of them using taxidermy, with historical wildlife paintings. The diversity of works and the way they were installed in the space was quite entrancing. There were works in the show that were disturbing, and many that were quite inspiring.

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.

5 Questions with Lara Shipley

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: Lara Shipley
Nominating committee: Greater Kansas City Area / Consulting curator: Catherine Futter, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

1. Organic Matters includes art that refers or responds to the natural world. How do the works from your series “Devil’s Promenade” (specifically, In the Ozarks there are Lights and False Lights) relate to the theme of nature?

Lara Shipley; Photo by Daniel Coburn

Lara Shipley; Photo by Daniel Coburn

“Devil’s Promenade” is about the relationship between rural culture and landscape, specifically Ozark culture in Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas. The project is framed around the story of a mysterious light on a wooded road, called the Spook Light. It is seen in an area referred to as Devil’s Promenade and it is said the Devil also lives on the road and steals wanderers’ souls. In this place you can either find redemption or damnation. These are two very extreme options, and it’s a fate lacking in volition. Whatever happens, happens to you.

This story takes place in one of the most consistently impoverished areas of the country, where limited opportunity creates a struggle for agency. I find it fascinating how certain physical locations become the settings for specific stories, and by going there, you are able to reflect on their significance to your life.

The two pieces in the Organic Matters exhibition reference the story of the mysterious light in the woods, putting the viewer in the vantage point of the wanderer. But in neither image is it clear if the light will provide good or harm. In the frozen state of photographic time we have no resolution to this question.

2. Are these works representative of your oeuvre? How do they fit into your larger body of work?

All of my work focuses on rural American community and its relationship to physical place. I also am a portrait maker, a writer, and a bookmaker. For me the final project is a combination of all of these elements.

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Lara Shipley, In the Ozarks There Are Lights (Devil’s Promenade), 2013; Inkjet print, 30 x 37 in.; Courtesy of the artist

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

Open eyes, open ears, and an open mind. They keep me from just remaking what I already think I know. Which is very little.

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

Really too many to name! Some of my initial inspirations came from novels. Growing up in the country I didn’t have access to a lot of culture. My mom was a librarian and has always been a voracious reader, and to entertain me as a teenager, would give me novels that were perhaps a little adult for my age. Through writers such as Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, Steinbeck, and Gabriel García Márquez, I began to understand symbolic thinking. I remember the excitement of first tapping into this coded language, like discovering a hole in the floor to another world. This really put me at odds with the evangelical community I grew up around, which looks at the world, and the Bible, very literally. Both fascinated me, but it was very confusing trying to reconcile the two. This tension is very present in my project “Devil’s Promenade.”

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

There are two great group exhibitions up in Kansas City right now. American Soldier, a photography exhibition at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and Making Histories, a primarily video exhibition focusing on global events at H&R Block Artspace. Both do a fantastic job, in my opinion, of bringing together artists who take a wide variety of approaches to topics more frequently relegated to journalism. The pieces in these shows are both beautiful and challenging, and the experimentation present was really inspiring and gave me a lot of hometown pride!

5 Questions with Françoise Pétrovitch

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: Françoise Pétrovitch
Nominating committee: Les Amis du NMWA, France / Consulting curator: Julia Garimorth, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

1. Organic Matters includes art that refers or responds to the natural world. How does your work relate to the broad theme of nature?

Françoise Pétrovitch; © Hervé Plumet

Françoise Pétrovitch; © Hervé Plumet

In my work, the animals are almost always associated with humans; sitting in the palm of their hands, leaning close to a face or floating over a body.

They show the presence of nature, the animal aspect of humans and that nature is the reflection of an interior world. It is a mental landscape, a dream world.

2. How does this piece fit into your overall body of work? Is it representative of your oeuvre?

Yes, it is representative of my work. This is a recent series (Les allongés, or “Lying down”), where the body is in the foreground and the bird is in an imagined space. They are big drawings where the space is undetermined.

Françoise Pétrovitch, Untitled, 2014; Ink on paper, 63 x 94 1/2 in.; Courtesy of Semiose galerie, Paris; Photography by Hervé Plumet

Françoise Pétrovitch, Untitled, 2014; Ink on paper, 63 x 94 1/2 in.; Courtesy of Semiose galerie, Paris; Photography by Hervé Plumet

3. What is your most essential artistic tool or process?

Drawing is what drives my work. What I enjoy is its speed in execution, its direct relationship to my thoughts, and its freedom of expression. I enjoy the lightness of touch which it requires.

4. What are your sources of inspiration?

I find my greatest inspiration in literature, as I feel it can be very intimate and often reveals that which we refuse to see. I am touched by the novels of Edna O’Brien, Joyce Carol Oates, Marguerite Duras, Anita Desai, Nathalie Sarraute . . . books written by women who tell, in their own way, of the intimate relationships between sisters, and between mothers and daughters; these stories resonate with my work as they describe a certain fragility and at the same time the violent relationships these women have with the world which surrounds them.

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

Recently, I went to the Bonnard show at the Musée d’Orsay. I was able to immediately “enter” into his work; one feels as though one is drowning in his ultra-sensitive, enveloping universe. It is amazing to see the same touch, the same light which emanates from the paintings from 1908 and others from 1938. It is a fabulous pictorial lesson of cohesiveness.

5 Questions with Polly Morgan

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: Polly Morgan
Nominating committee: Friends of NMWA, U.K. / Consulting curator: Lisa Le Feuvre, Henry Moore Institute

1. Organic Matters includes art that refers or responds to the natural world. How do you think your work Systemic Inflammation relates to the broad theme of nature? What does the use of taxidermy in your works allow you to do that you could not do with any other media?

Polly Morgan; Photo by Amanda Eliasch

Polly Morgan; Photo by Amanda Eliasch

Taxidermy is an ultimately futile effort to harness nature, it allows us to manipulate and control the body of an animal in a way we would struggle, or in my case would not wish, to in life. Systemic Inflammation reimagines a Victorian invention for a flying machine; where a passenger would be transported by birds shackled to a carriage. Flight, or more specifically wings, is the ultimate symbol of freedom. Seeing these birds outside of, but harnessed to, the cage presents a paradox: who is free, passenger or bird?

Most objects can be art; a urinal, a bed, etc. A dead animal presents a problem in that it decays and can therefore only exist a finite amount of time before being altered irrevocably. Taxidermy has thus allowed me to incorporate animals in my work the way other sculptors use “found objects.”

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

With this work I was thinking of the mythological Phoenix rising from the ashes. I chose to use only orange birds as I wanted them to resemble flames, and to blacken and burn the cage to make it look as though it had been dragged from a fire. Like many of my works it reflects on the cycle of life and death, so in this way is representative of my oeuvre.

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

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

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

It might sound trite, but my brain. My practice is more and more varied and the most consistent tool I use is my imagination. Practically speaking I wouldn’t be able to get very far with just one tool, but a scalpel would be high on the list of essentials!

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

I never know what or whom I’ll be inspired by so it’s just important to try to keep spending time with interesting people, reading books, watching films and seeing exhibitions. Many of my favorite ideas have come to me when I’m walking my dogs as it’s an opportunity to rest my mind and to cut back on aural stimulation.

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

I recently saw the work of American artist Sarah Sze at the Victoria Miro gallery in London. I love her use of everyday, even scrap, objects and think of her as being one of those alchemical artists who can elevate the mundane and give it depth and beauty.