Ex­hi­bi­tion stomps stereo­types of fe­male artists

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSEUMS - BY ME­NACHEM WECKER style@wash­post.com Wecker is a free­lance writer. Or­ganic Mat­ters — Women to Watch 2015 and Su­per Nat­u­ral. Through Sept. 13 at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW. 202-783-5000. www.nmwa.org.

From a dis­tance, Arkansas artist Dawn Holder’s in­stal­la­tion “Mono­cul­ture” (2013), which the artist in­stalls on gallery floors, re­sem­bles a rec­tan­gu­lar patch of grass. Closer in­spec­tion re­veals that each hand­made blade of “grass” is ac­tu­ally porce­lain.

When cu­ra­tors at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) se­lected the piece for the ex­hi­bi­tion “Or­ganic Mat­ters — Women to Watch 2015,” they couldn’t have an­tic­i­pated how rel­e­vant it would be.

“It’s a com­men­tary on Amer­ica’s ob­ses­sion with per­fectly man­i­cured lawns,” says Vir­ginia Tre­anor, an as­so­ciate NMWA cu­ra­tor and ex­hi­bi­tion cu­ra­tor. “The del­i­cacy of the ma­te­rial ref­er­ences the frag­ile­ness of the re­source, which is wa­ter, that is pumped and pumped into the lawns.”

With Cal­i­for­nia plagued by drought and some home­own­ers in that state re­port­edly paint­ing fad­ing lawns green, the work is “so timely,” says Amy Man­nar­ino, a mu­seum spokes­woman.

“Or­ganic Mat­ters,” the fourth it­er­a­tion of the mu­seum’s “Women to Watch” se­ries, is culled from nom­i­na­tions from 13 of the mu­seum’s 18 na­tional and in­ter­na­tional out­reach com­mit­tees, which ad­vise the mu­seum. Each com­mit­tee may nom­i­nate up to five artists from its re­gion, and cu­ra­tors at the down­town Washington mu­seum se­lect one artist per com­mit­tee to show. The com­mit­tees were asked to se­lect artists whose works fo­cus on na­ture, which also is the sub­ject of what Tre­anor calls a “sis­ter ex­hibit,” also run­ning at the mu­seum, ti­tled “Su­per Nat­u­ral.”

It’s easy to wan­der be­tween “Su­per Nat­u­ral” and “Or­ganic Mat­ters” with­out re­al­iz­ing it. The for­mer pro­vides his­tor­i­cal con­text dat­ing to the 17th cen­tury, while the lat­ter presents works only by liv­ing artists.

Both shows ex­plore cen­turiesold gen­der stereo­types that barred fe­male artists from the im­por­tant gen­res of history and re­li­gious paint­ing. In­stead, they were ex­pected to copy land­scapes and fruit ar­range­ments, per­ceived as lowlier sub­jects.

“Through­out Western history at least, and maybe even more broadly, there’s al­ways been this as­so­ci­a­tion of cul­ture with what men are em­pow­ered to pro­duce,” says He­len Langa, an as­so­ciate art history pro­fes­sor at Amer­i­can Univer­sity whose re­search and teach­ing ad­dress gen­der. “Women have al­ways been seen as closer to na­ture, partly be­cause they men­stru­ate, they have chil­dren and they cook.”

More re­cently, many fe­male artists in the late-20th and early-21st cen­turies have been fas­ci­nated by the “magic of na­ture” and its “non-hu­man qual­i­ties” but, un­like some of their male coun­ter­parts, ex­plore it with­out seek­ing to over­power na­ture, Langa says. Still, some stereo­types have en­dured.

“When peo­ple say ‘ Mother Na­ture,’ there’s still this sense of na­ture as other to civ­i­liza­tion. In that cul­tural pro­jec­tion, civ­i­liza­tion is usu­ally seen as mas­cu­line and na­ture is seen as some­how fem­i­nized,” she says.

The NMWA ex­hi­bi­tion seeks to dis­pel the no­tion that women are closer to na­ture than men. When fe­male artists mine na­ture as sub­ject­mat­ter, they of­ten ad­dress the grue­some rather than the pretty and the dainty. “They don’t shy away,” Tre­anor says.

One such work in the ex­hibit is “Nym­pheas #12” (2007), a pho­to­graph of an ar­range­ment the Italy-based duo Sara Gold­schmied and Eleonora Chiari made by fish­ing plas­tic bags out of the Tiber River and re­ar­rang­ing the lit­ter to evoke Monet’s wa­ter lilies. The bags look more like flow­ers than garbage.

“Are we so used to see­ing trash in rivers that it looks nat­u­ral?” Tre­anor asks.

Polly Mor­gan’s “Sys­temic In­flam­ma­tion” (2010) comes from an artist whose work has been con­fused with trash. In April 2009, movers mis­took a piece of Mor­gan’s — a taxi­der­mied bird in a match­box — in Court­ney Love’s col­lec­tion for garbage and tossed it. At the NMWA, Mor­gan’s in­stal­la­tion con­tains about 20 taxi­der­mied finches — the sec­ond re­cent ap­pear­ance of that species at the mu­seum — tied by steel cords to a cage.

Although Mor­gan uses an­i­mals that have died nat­u­rally (“Now that she’s known for do­ing this, peo­ple send her things,” Tre­anor says), the yel­low-or­ange painted finches are omi­nously se­cured. And the cage, mod­eled on a 19th­cen­tury draw­ing of a fly­ing ma­chine, is charred. The flame-col­ored birds also evoke the phoenix, the artist has said.

In the ad­ja­cent gal­leries, the 23 artists in­cluded in “Su­per Nat­u­ral” ad­dress broader as­pects of na­ture. “They’ve been con­cerned with science and the forces of na­ture, in­clud­ing de­cay and, frankly, the strange­ness of na­ture,” says NMWA’s chief cu­ra­tor, Kathryn Wat.

In her video “Still Life” (2001), Sam Tay­lor-John­son, known for di­rect­ing “Fifty Shades of Grey,” ac­cel­er­ates the cam­era’s cap­ture of a bowl of fruit de­cay­ing and grow­ing moldy over time.

Else­where in the show, Pa­tri­cia Pic­cinini’s “The Stags” (2008) re­sem­ble a cross be­tween deer and mo­tor­cy­cles. The “stags,” painted with automotive paint and dis­play­ing wheels, have “antlers” made of mo­tor­cy­cle side mir­rors. The work, in which the two bod­ies ap­pear to clash, ex­plores trou­bling ma­chine-liv­ing hy­brids.

“Her ques­tion isn’t whether this is good or bad,” Wat says, “but are we ready for it?”

In “Or­ganic Mat­ters,” another artist ad­dresses dystopian fu­tures. Jen­nifer Ce­lio’s pen­cil draw­ing “NIMBY (na­tional park)” (2012), which ref­er­ences the phrase “not in my back yard,” de­picts a trou­bling imag­i­nary park where an oil rig, a food truck selling Korean bar­be­cue tacos and an abun­dance of sur­veil­lance equip­ment blend poorly with na­ture.

To make the point more bla­tant, some tourists in the work ig­nore a real bear climb­ing a tree to in­stead pho­to­graph a per­son in a bear cos­tume. And scrawled in enor­mous letters on a moun­tain is the phrase “We are the 99%.”

In Ce­lio’s work, and in many other pieces in the two NMWA ex­hi­bi­tions, there is a ten­sion be­tween beau­ti­ful and trou­bling de­pic­tions of na­ture. That re­flects what Langa, the AU pro­fes­sor, says is a view in the art world to­day that im­por­tant artists make com­pli­cated, ab­stract works, while those who paint beau­ti­ful land­scapes are val­ued less. “We don’t see it in Art­fo­rum or ART news, par­tic­u­larly,” she says.

“You re­ally have a com­plexly tiered art sys­tem now in the United States.”

DAWN HOLDER/NA­TIONAL MU­SEUM OF WOMEN IN THE ARTS

“Mono­cul­ture,” by Dawn Holder, is a com­men­tary on “Amer­ica’s ob­ses­sion with per­fectly man­i­cured lawns,” says Vir­ginia Tre­anor, cu­ra­tor of “Or­gan­icMat­ters — Women toWatch 2015,” on ex­hibit at the Na­tion­alMu­seum of Women in the Arts.

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