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.

5 Questions with Andrea Lira

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: Andrea Lira
Nominating committee: Chile Committee / Consulting curator: Soledad García Saavedra, independent curator

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

Andrea Lira; Photo by Phillip Angert

Andrea Lira; Photo by Phillip Angert

Most of my work refers to the natural world, since it is directly related to the environment I inhabit. I carefully collect raw materials like plants, sounds, and observations that I later bring to the studio. Sometimes they lead me into drawings, videos, or objects. In this case, I made the video RHYTHMS while I was doing a residence in Berlin, so the materials I used were all plants and organic debris collected from the streets.

I wanted to create metaphors about our similarities to the natural world and small gestures that showed those transformations and behaviors. Each vignette is an action or gesture from nature in a way. However, nature is more than a theme to me, it is a way of understanding life’s cycles and a language. Understanding the language of nature can help us create balance and harmony in our lives. The idea of recycling and repurposing is also part of my work, since I am constantly giving new shapes and meaning to the elements I collect, cutting them, tracing them, preserving them, etc.

2. How does RHYTHMS fit into your larger body of work?

I like to experiment with different materials and mediums, from drawing to animation, objects, and installations. However, the themes I investigate are mostly inspired by the language of nature, the morphology of plants, its behaviors, complex beauty and how we interact with our environment. The video RHYTHMS was done very spontaneously. I didn’t want to force any aesthetics, but experiment. It looks very different from my earlier videos, which were more elaborate and premeditated. Overall, the important thing in my work is the process that leads to the final work and the idea. Some pieces look more finished than others, but I like to have that freedom. It allows me to create more and not get stuck with the technical side.

Andrea Lira in collaboration with Marisa Benji, RHYTHMS, 2013; Video and animation; Courtesy of the artist

Andrea Lira in collaboration with Marisa Benji, RHYTHMS, 2013; Video and animation; Courtesy of the artist

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

First of all, observation, and then a passion for the act of drawing and understanding the world through images. The more I observe, the more I can connect concepts and forms. Then, drawing, because of its flexibility and expressiveness. Everybody can relate to this language, we have all drawn at some point in our lives, I drew before I started to talk. Drawing always surprises me. I can pull images from the unconscious, memories, trace gestures, visualized complex patterns, emotions, music, or drawings with different materials. The important thing is the action of making a personal mark that will reflect your personality, a rhythm, a unique gesture. It is sometimes a form of meditation and similar to writing, I can express my ideas faster with a pencil.

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

Most of my inspiration comes from nature and our relationship to it. But my first influence was my father, who as a surgeon taught me to observe trees and flowers, and to appreciate insects and the fragility of the human body. We could spend hours drawing and talking about a bone.

My world is also inspired by movement, the language of the body, dance, and sound. I was influenced by performance artists such as Bruce Nauman, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Trisha Brown, who used their bodies as tools and were constantly experimenting. Then I felt very connected with minimalist artist Agnes Martin, who can express a very powerful emotion through a simple line and color. Her work can translate the beauty and peace that I find in nature. But overall, my influences are constantly changing. I am now reading a very interesting book by Manuel Lima that talks about how we understand data and information graphically.

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

The last exhibition I saw was a retrospective of Yayoi Kusama, who experimented with multiple mediums and really took control of her career as an outsider and independent artist in New York during the ’70s. Her body of work is fascinating, from her early giant Minimalist paintings to her performances and colorful installations. She had a very rich personal world and was not afraid of exhibiting her fears, political views, obsessions about the body, sex, and even fashion statements. She used the media and the press as another outlet to convey her messages. Finally, she moved back to Japan to reinvent herself as an artist in a completely changed country, where she has voluntarily lived in a mental institution. Her art was not only her profession, but maybe a type of therapy to understand and cope with her own persona. In one way or another, we want to make art so we can see beyond our physical lives and truly try to understand the mind and our deepest emotions.

5 Questions with Ysabel LeMay

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: Ysabel LeMay
Nominating committee: Texas State Committee / Curator: Virginia Treanor, National Museum of Women in the Arts

Ysabel LeMay; Photograph by Joel Salcido

Ysabel LeMay; Photograph by Joel Salcido

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

Nature is omnipresent in my work. I strive not only to honor its beauty, grace, and power, but to go further, to explore and learn from nature’s consciousness, its infinite procession of interrelationships. Reflection speaks of the mirror effect that a relationship with another can offer, especially when we are aware and specifically choose certain challenging relationships as opportunities to grow and to awaken to our own beauty and individuality.

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

From a technical perspective, Reflection shares the hypercollage technique I employ throughout my body of work—an enhanced approach to digital collage, in which fragments of original nature photography are woven into tableaus with the cohesion and persuasiveness of classical painting. Thematically, this specific work continues an ongoing story established with Les Naturalistes, a piece I created a few years back. It represents two people who profoundly love each other, but decide to depart from their shared relationship, to grow individually, respecting their own natural rhythms.

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Ysabel LeMay, Reflection, 2014; Color print diptych, 61 x 72 in. overall; Courtesy of the artist

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

Observation. I like to say, if you just take the time to relax and observe, you can have access to the gates of creativity.

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

I am influenced by my personal awakening and the things that trigger the opening of my heart. Nature, art, people . . . .

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

I recently visited Armory Week in New York City, and felt that the collective energy emanating from the artists’ works had changed since the last few years. Less shocking, less in-your-face, but more introspective and aesthetically graceful. There is a need, perhaps, to explore again the brighter side of life—a place I have been expressing visually for many years now.

5 Questions with Mimi Kato

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: Mimi Kato
Nominating committee: Ohio Advisory Group / Consulting curators: Reto Thüring, Cleveland Museum of Art; Rose Bouthillier, MOCA Cleveland

1. Organic Matters includes art that refers or responds to the natural world. How do you think your work Landscape Retreat: In the Woods relates to the theme of nature?

Mimi Kato; Photo by Robert Muller, Courtesy of Cleveland Institute of Art

Mimi Kato; Photo by Robert Muller, Courtesy of Cleveland Institute of Art

My interest in nature and landscape stems from my longing for the familiar landscape of my home, Japan. Drawing landscape from my memories, photographs, and online street views, I started to think about our daily landscape and how our lives, activities, and actions constantly affect its form.

Exploring urban landscapes, I noticed many green spaces hidden under and between urban structures, such as under highway bridges and empty abandoned lots. These green spaces do not come to mind when we talk about nature even though they function in an ecosystem, supporting the lives of plants and animals. The series “Landscape Retreat” focuses on one such landscape by analyzing human perception and categorization of nature.

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

Yes. Inspired by theater, especially Japanese traditional mask theater and contemporary Butoh, I started to perform in my work. Every figure presented in my work is me, conveying the narratives of the compositions through poses and acts. My interest, ideas, and narratives have shifted over time; however the performance aspect remains and is also present in the series “Landscape Retreat.” The process of my work, performing, sewing costumes, making props, and directing narratives, resembles the process of the theater and I often refer to my work as one-person theater.

Mimi Kato, Landscape Retreat: In the Woods (detail), 2012; Archival pigment print diptych, each print 28 x 65 in.; Courtesy of the artist

Mimi Kato, Landscape Retreat: In the Woods (detail), 2012; Archival pigment print diptych, each print 28 x 65 in.; Courtesy of the artist

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

The most essential tool for me is curiosity. Asking many “why” questions to even the most mundane things that surround our lives could reveal new findings.

Recently, I collaborated on a project with the invasive plants management crew from the Cleveland Metroparks. This project started with a very simple question about familiar plants from Japan in the American landscape: “Why are they here?” Following this curiosity and finding the answers, the project pushed me out of my routine studio practice, leading to a collaboration and site-specific installation. A simple question opened up a new possibility and challenges in my art practice.

I believe curiosity is an essential tool in any field and can enrich and strengthen one’s thinking process and way finding.

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

Things that surround me, especially landscapes at this moment. It is fascinating to see how we humans have been marking our existence in the landscape.

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

Forty-Part Motet by Janet Cardiff at Cleveland Museum of Art, The Paradise Institute also by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, and The Visitors by Ragnar Kjartansson at Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland.

5 Questions with Rebecca Hutchinson

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: Rebecca Hutchinson
Nominating committee: Massachusetts State Committee / Consulting curator: Jen Mergel, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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

Rebecca Hutchinson; Photo by Kurt Keller

Rebecca Hutchinson; Photo by Kurt Keller

My work is inspired from ecosystem research, how things grow and survive within specific dynamics. Patterns are seen both formally and behaviorally.

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

This piece is new work; a new series working from the floor yet connects to the history of my work through ecosystem research. In this case, I have researched rock outcroppings and forest floor as well as botanical motifs in Persian rugs.

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

A bucket. Everything is mixed with water, whether clay or fiber, and collected there again after being prepared waiting to be manipulated and used.

Rebecca Hutchinson, Patterns of Nature (detail), 2014; Porcelain paper clay, fiber, and organic material, 10 x 36 x 96 in.; Courtesy of the artis

Rebecca Hutchinson, Patterns of Nature (detail), 2014; Porcelain paper clay, fiber, and organic material, 10 x 36 x 96 in.; Courtesy of the artist

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

I look at both folk art and contemporary works by trained artists as well as aspects of nature.

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

A solo show of Eva Hild in Chelsea—forms were sensual and masterfully gripping.

5 Questions with Dawn Holder

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

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

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

Dawn Holder; Photo courtesy of C. S.

Dawn Holder; Photo courtesy of C. S. Carrier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

5 Questions with Goldschmied & Chiari

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: Goldschmied & Chiari
Nominating committee: Gli Amici del NMWA, Italy / Consulting curator: Iolanda Ratti, Museo del Novecento

1. Organic Matters includes art that refers or responds to the natural world. How do you think your work Nympheas #12 relates to the theme of nature and specifically to environmental concerns?

Goldschmied & Chiari; Photo by Giovanni De Angelis

Goldschmied & Chiari; Photo by Giovanni De Angelis

Nympheas #12 is part of a body of work that we started in 2002, mostly pictures of polluted landscapes inspired by Impressionist flânerie. The works in this series include photographs of plastic bags that appear like flowers, floating atop the polluted Tiber River in Rome. At the time we made these works, we were influenced by post-feminist theories and their questioning of what “natural,” “cultural,” and “artificial” were.

That’s why we started representing an artificial nature, using polluted landscapes and the common tool of plastic bags to show our personal view of flowers. We were asking ourselves about the relationship between gender and nature in history, keeping in our minds a mistrust of pureness.

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

The Nympheas are representative of our oeuvre. This body of work is the first step in our practice that highlights the need to go beyond the limits of nature and history, to inquire about the cultural, social, and visual construction of gender and landscape.

Goldschmied & Chiari, Nympheas #12, 2007; Color print, 49 1/4 x 131 1/8 in.; Courtesy of the Podesta Collection

Goldschmied & Chiari, Nympheas #12, 2007; Color print,
49 1/4 x 131 1/8 in.; Courtesy of the Tony Podesta Collection

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

Our most essential tool is our relationship as an artist duo because it feeds our art practice, for example, so that we see multiple sides of one issue.

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

Philosophy, visual, and social studies, and our Italian historical background, which is often a subject of our works.

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

Late Turner at the Tate Modern during our recent research.

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 Questions with Jennifer Celio

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: Jennifer Celio
Nominating committee: Southern California Committee / Consulting curator: Corrina Peipon, Hammer Museum

1. Organic Matters includes art that refers or responds to the natural world. How do you think your “NIMBY” series relates to the theme of nature?

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Celio

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Celio

My drawings are equally about the natural world and the human-made environment. I have a deep respect for nature and have always seen the need for us humans to act as responsible stewards of all its ecosystems. My work is more specifically about where human civilization meets the natural world, the places and ways in which flora and fauna collide and interact with people.

I’m most interested in how animals and plants adapt to human intrusion into their habitats, even reclaiming those spaces in new manners. There is also an ongoing, dark fascination with how people remove nature and then replace it with facsimiles, and what effect that has upon the human spirit and the loss of connection to the larger world.

2. Is this work representative of your oeuvre? How does the “NIMBY” series fit into your larger body of work?

The “NIMBY” series evolved to encapsulate everything I had developed in my drawings. I wanted to create drawings that felt large in scale by virtue of depicting these imagined environments that were full of details showing plants, wildlife, mountains, airplanes, cell phone signal tower “trees,” and people—often messy and definitely dystopic renderings of our world. Probably the best way to describe my work is that it depicts situations and places that I hope never come to exist.

Jennifer Celio, NIMBY (national park), 2012; Graphite on Yupo paper, 38 x 50 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Photography by Alan Shaffer

Jennifer Celio, NIMBY (national park), 2012; Graphite on Yupo paper, 38 x 50 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Photography by Alan Shaffer

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

At the risk of sounding cliché, I would have to say it is the internal sight, the imagining of what can be, of what can then be created in the actual sense, using pencil or paint on the two-dimensional surface. I can’t begin to describe what a rush it is when an idea hits me, and then to see that idea through to fruition.

4. What are your sources of inspiration or influence?

Most of my inspiration is from the city, the urban environment. The act of driving brings out most of my ideas. Often it is some graffiti or a building or noticing a tree that has been chopped down that sparks an idea. Going out into nature, hiking, camping, etc., is essential for my sanity, but those situations don’t spark ideas right away. Rather, I take photos and jot down phrases in my notebook, waiting until eventually I can amalgamate the seemingly random bits into a cohesive whole.

I must admit I’m an unabashed admirer of Andrew Wyeth’s art. His work has been a huge influence since I was a child. I was enamored by his labor-intensive style, the patience it took to render his scenes, the time spent becoming intimate with those subjects. The precisely rendered textures, white negative spaces, and detailed realism of his work have shown themselves in my own drawings. There is a pursuit of Wyeth’s “magic realism” that I hope to capture in my own work.

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

I usually have mixed reactions to almost every exhibit I see. Love and hate. I have seen many thought-provoking shows at galleries in Los Angeles recently. It is great to walk out of those exhibits all fired up, whether it’s to discuss the work or because it sparks the fire under me to get back into my studio at that very moment.