Women Making Moves: Immigrant Artists in NMWA’s Collection

As life in Europe became increasingly dangerous during World War II, some artists sought new lives abroad. Burgeoning art movements springing from major cities in North America shifted the art world spotlight away from Europe. European-born artists Anni Albers, Eva Hesse, and Remedios Varo became prominent figures in their respective art movements after fleeing Europe for North America.

Anni Albers, Untitled, 1969; Serigraph on paper; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay, NMWA

Anni Albers, Untitled, 1969; Serigraph on paper; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay, NMWA

Anni Albers (1899–1994)

Anni Albers grew up in Germany and met her husband, fellow artist Josef Albers, at the Bauhaus in the 1920s. Albers experimented with textiles, creating abstract woven wall hangings, and became Head of the Weaving Workshop in 1931—a senior position that was rare for a woman. In 1933, the Albers couple moved to the U.S. to escape the pressures of Nazi control. Both taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina and exhibited work around the country. In 1949, she became the first weaver to have a solo exhibition at MoMA. Her contributions to both textile and printmaking traditions earned her honorary doctorates, lifetime achievement awards, a gold medal from the American Craft Council, and an induction into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame.

Eva Hesse, Study for Sculpture, 1970; Sculp-Metal, cord, Elmer’s glue, acrylic paint, and varnish on Masonite, 10 x 10 x 1 in.; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © The Estate of Eva Hesse, Hauser & Wirth Zürich, London

Eva Hesse, Study for Sculpture, 1970; Sculp-Metal, cord, Elmer’s glue, acrylic paint, and varnish on Masonite, 10 x 10 x 1 in.; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © The Estate of Eva Hesse, Hauser & Wirth Zürich, London

Eva Hesse (1936–1970)

Eva Hesse was born into a Jewish family in Nazi Germany. When she was 3 years old, her parents moved the family to the U.S. to flee the Nazi regime. Hesse studied under Josef Albers at Yale before working as an artist in New York City in the 1960s. She exhibited watercolors and drawings in 1961, and continued working in this medium during the first half of the decade. In 1965, Hesse moved to Germany for one year, where she experimented with making abstract sculptures. Once back in New York, Hesse continued her sculpture practice and was featured in the exhibition Eccentric Abstraction at Fischbach Gallery. Tragically, Hesse died from cancer in 1969 after only ten years of art making—but her influence on contemporary sculpture continues.

Remedios Varo, Tejido espacio-tiempo (Weaving of Space and Time), 1954; Oil on Masonite, 32 1/2 x 28 x 2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift from Private Collection

Remedios Varo (1908–1963)

Remedios Varo, originally from Spain, was forced to migrate as a result of war—twice. Varo moved to Paris to escape the Spanish Civil War, where she met and worked with the Surrealists who greatly influenced her work. Then, in 1941, the Nazi invasion forced Varo to flee again, this time to Mexico. Once there, she became a part of a community of artists, and continued working in a Surrealist style with her friend Leonora Carrington. After only a few years of having her work featured in solo exhibitions, Varo suffered a fatal heart attack in 1963. Her works have been shown in Mexico City’s Museum of Modern Art and NMWA held a retrospective of more than 50 of her pieces in 2000. To further cement her impact on American culture, her work Los Amantes inspired imagery in Madonna’s 1995 music video for her song “Bedtime Story.”

Experience the legacy of these immigrant artists by visiting the museum in person or online today!

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

Artist Friendships: Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo

Inspired by the special exhibition New Ground: The Southwest of Maria Martinez and Laura Gilpin, we are celebrating famous artist friendships. Did you know that Leonora Carrington (1917–2011) and Remedios Varo (1908–1963) met in Paris and became close friends after finding refuge in Mexico City?

Surreal Sisters

Both Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo painted primarily in a Surrealist style, infusing their works with mysticism and otherworldly elements. NMWA owns five works by Carrington, including one print, two paintings, and two sculptures. Although Carrington did not begin producing sculptures until 1990, The Ship of Cranes (2010) is exemplary of Carrington’s interest in mythology and use of animal symbolism.

One the three paintings by Varo in the collection, La Llamada (The Call) (1961), is on view on the mezzanine level. La Llamada (The Call) provides viewers with signature traits of Varo’s work, including an ethereal being dressed in gold against a darker, castle-like background.

A Match Made in Mexico

Carrington and Varo met in Paris during the Surrealist movement, and were seen as the “femmes-enfants” to the famous and much older male artists in their lives. Varo had left Spain with poet Benjamin Péret and Carrington was in a relationship with Max Ernst. Their friendship then moved overseas to Mexico City as the outbreak of World War II in Europe caused them to move. In their new home, the two saw each other almost daily, of which Carrington said, “Remedios’s presence in Mexico changed my life.”

Though they painted separately, they did spent time together cooking, writing spells, and looking for ways to prank guests. Their mutual interest in alchemy is evident in their works. Both artists often depicted magical, alternate realities that are characteristic of Surrealism. While Carrington and Varo shared subject matter based on the universe, the supernatural, alchemy, and astrology, they interpret these topics differently in their works. In the book Surreal Friends: Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Kati Horna, Stefan van Raay writes, “Carrington’s work is about tone and color and Varo’s is about line and form.”

In Carrington’s book The Healing Trumpet, she modeled the two main characters after much older versions of herself and Varo, revealing how important she felt the friendship was to her and her wish that it would last well into their old age. Varo also included their friendship in stories she wrote, creating characters just as outlandish as Carrington’s.

Learn about the friendship between potter Maria Martinez (ca. 1887–1980) and photographer Laura Gilpin (1891–1979), whose works are on view in New Ground through May 14, 2017.

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

Artist Friendships: Loïs Mailou Jones and Céline Tabary

Inspired by the special exhibition New Ground: The Southwest of Maria Martinez and Laura Gilpin, we are celebrating famous artist friendships. Did you know that Loïs Mailou Jones (1905–1998) and Céline Tabary (1908–1993) were close friends who met in Paris before establishing art classes and a studio group in Washington, D.C.?

Lasting Impressions

NMWA’s collection contains six works by Loïs Mailou Jones. Her colorful landscape painting Arreau, Hautes-Pyrénées (1949) was completed while the artist was on a sojourn in France. Other works by Jones are much more modernist in style, with bold colors and an African influence veering towards abstraction.

Céline Tabary’s painting Terrasse de Café, Paris (1950) is also part of NMWA’s collection. Tabary painted in an impressionist style for most of her career, but Terrasse de Café, Paris reveals an emerging cubist influence.

Little Paris in Washington, D.C.

Loïs Mailou Jones, Arreau, Hautes-Pyrénées, 1949; Oil on canvas, 19 1/2 x 23 5/8 in; National Museum of Women in the Arts; Gift of Gladys P. Payne

Loïs Mailou Jones, Arreau, Hautes-Pyrénées, 1949; Oil on canvas, 19 1/2 x 23 5/8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Gladys P. Payne; © Loïs Mailou Jones

Jones moved to Paris in 1937 to study at the Academie Julien. Jones fell in love with the French way of life and lack of racial prejudice, and was introduced to Tabary, a fellow student, when she needed help translating. The two became friends, and Jones visited Tabary’s family in the north of France. Jones considers paintings she did there some of her best.

Jones returned to Washington, D.C. in 1938, and Tabary joined her, as they both planned to go back to France together. However, the start of World War II prevented their return, and Tabary and Jones continued working together in the United States and established Saturday morning art class for children as well as a salon style group to promote the artistic practice of public school art teachers. Alma Thomas, another prominent artist represented in NMWA’s collection, was also a part of the “Little Paris Group” run by Jones and Tabary.

Jones and Tabary remained very close friends throughout their careers. Due to racial tensions in the U.S., Jones did not want to reveal to the institutions acquiring her work that she was African American. In these instances, Tabary delivered Jones’s paintings for her, ensuring her friend’s works were exhibited. Tabary eventually returned to France, but even in an interview in the late 1980s, Jones mentioned visiting her friend. “Very soon I’ll be goin’ to visit Céline. . . . Before I return to Haiti, I’m goin’ back to paint with her again, like in the old days, even at my age which is now 83. That is certainly many, many years since it all started in Paris at the Academie Julian in 1937.”

Learn about the friendship between potter Maria Martinez (ca. 1887–1980) and photographer Laura Gilpin (1891–1979), whose works are on view in New Ground through May 14, 2017.

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

5 Fast Facts: Amy Sherald

Impress your friends with five fast facts about painter Amy Sherald (b. 1973), whose work is on view in NMWA’s collection galleries.

NMWA visitors study Amy Sherald’s Amy Sherald’s It Made Sense…Mostly In Her Mind, 2011 (left) and They call me Redbone but I’d rather be Strawberry Shortcake, 2009 (right); Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

NMWA visitors study Amy Sherald’s It Made Sense…Mostly In Her Mind, 2011 (left) and They call me Redbone but I’d rather be Strawberry Shortcake, 2009 (right); Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

1. Figure It Out

Sherald’s fascination with portraiture began at a young age when she explored art history through encyclopedias. Enthralled by the illustrations, she came to the conclusion that a great artist has the ability to expertly render the human form.

2. Make It Big

Sherald first visited a museum on a sixth grade field trip, and she still remembers the impact of seeing Bo Bartlett’s 10-by-14-foot Object Permanence (1986). This work sparked her desire to create large-scale figurative paintings.

3. Do What You Love

The daughter of a dentist, Sherald entered Clark-Atlanta University as a pre-med student, but her passion for painting was too strong to ignore. She switched majors in the middle of her junior year and began to focus on her art in earnest.

4. Model Behavior

The model featured in They Call Me Redbone but I’d Rather Be Strawberry Shortcake (2009), in NMWA’s collection, also appears in another of work by Sherald, Well Prepared and Maladjusted (2008). According to the artist, “[The model] was tall and different looking, and she had this really awesome Afro bouff.”

5. Herstory

In 2016, Sherald became the first woman to win the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition for her work Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance) (2013).

Want to meet the artist? Join us on May 9, 2017 for a special Artists in Conversation program featuring Amy Sherald. Reserve your spot online!

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

Artist Friendships: Lola Álvarez Bravo and Frida Kahlo

Inspired by the special exhibition New Ground: The Southwest of Maria Martinez and Laura Gilpin, we are celebrating famous artist friendships. Did you know that Lola Álvarez Bravo (1903–1993) and Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) became friends through the same social circles in Mexico?

Nationalist Pride

One of Mexico’s first women photographers, Lola Álvarez Bravo’s works are celebrated for documenting daily life in post-revolutionary Mexico. Álvarez Bravo said, “If my photographs have any value, it’s because they show a Mexico that no longer exists.” Her work in NMWA’s collection, De generación en generación (1950), expresses a strong sense of Mexican nationalist pride combined with universal human emotions.

Frida Kahlo is renowned for her poignant, often shocking, self-portraits. Although she is referred to as a Surrealist, Kahlo maintained, “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” Remembered for her tragic life story and her turbulent marriage to famed muralist Diego Rivera, Kahlo was foremost a fierce painter and political activist. Her work in NMWA’s collection, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky (1937), is one of Kahlo’s softer self-portraits, meant to commemorate her brief affair with the Russian revolutionary Trotsky.

Amigas for Life

Álvarez Bravo started taking her own photographs after serving as an assistant to her husband, photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo. After their divorce, she began her own successful, independent career. It was also through her husband that she met Kahlo. Both artists were involved in the same social circles in Mexico and shared similar nationalistic outlooks that influenced their respective artistic practices.

Álvarez Bravo’s most well-known photos featuring Kahlo are often praised for their honesty and intimacy. Kahlo even fastened one of these portraits to the front of her diary, indicating the respect that she had for the photographer. In addition to capturing numerous portraits of Kahlo, Álvarez Bravo also directed a film starring the painter, but it was never completed because of Kahlo’s declining health. Álvarez Bravo hosted Kahlo’s first solo exhibition in Mexico at her own gallery, shortly before Kahlo’s untimely death.

Learn about the friendship between potter Maria Martinez (ca. 1887–1980) and photographer Laura Gilpin (1891–1979), whose works are on view in New Ground through May 14, 2017.

—Madeline Barnes is the spring 2017 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Sonya Clark

Impress your friends with five fast facts about textile artist Sonya Clark (b. 1967), whose work is on view in NMWA’s collection galleries.

Sonya Clark (b. 1967)

1. Hair’s to You!

Clark’s fascination with hair began at an early age, when neighborhood teenagers plaited her locks. She often uses human hair in her textile works because it’s a material loaded with meaning. Hair can serves as a portrait of an individual, a record of one’s ancestry, and an arena through which society negotiates race.

2. Picturing Pride

The artist alters a variety of familiar objects, like currency and combs, to create powerful portraits of prominent figures from American history. Her representations celebrate Abraham Lincoln for his role as an early civil rights leader, Barack Obama as the first black president, and Madame C.J. Walker as a civil rights activist and self-made millionaire.

3. “Bad” Hair Day

Prevailing social constructs have stigmatized black hair as “bad.” Clark addresses race-based valuations of hair in works like NAP (2011). By reclaiming and embracing a word that has traditionally held negative connotations, she calls into question assumptions that silky, straight, smooth hair is the only “good” hair out there.

4. Salon Style

The exhibition Follicular: The Hair Stories of Sonya Clark, currently on view at the Taubman Museum of Art, includes works by Clark as well as a collaborative project. Richmond-area hairdressers contributed textiles inspired by black hairstyles to Clark’s The Hair Craft Project. “Hairdressers are my heroes,” says Clark.

5. Unraveling Racism

In Unraveling and Unraveled (2015), Clark painstakingly deconstructed, thread by thread, a Confederate flag. For many Americans, this symbol represents bigotry and oppression. With three quarters of the flag left intact Clark leaves the process unfinished, suggesting that the hard work of defeating racism is not done.

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

Artist Friendships: Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Mary Jane Russell

Inspired by the special exhibition New Ground: The Southwest of Maria Martinez and Laura Gilpin, we are celebrating famous artist friendships. Did you know that photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe (1895–1989) and model Mary Jane Russell (1926–2003) developed a close friendship after collaborating on photo shoots for years?

Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Mary Jane Russell in Dior Dress, Paris, 1950; Gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Helen Cumming Ziegler; © 1989 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents Photograph by Louise Dahl-Wolfe

Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Mary Jane Russell in Dior Dress, Paris, 1950; Gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Helen Cumming Ziegler; © 1989 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents Photograph by Louise Dahl-Wolfe

Fixative Focus

Renowned for her work with Harper’s Bazaar, Louise Dahl-Wolfe revolutionized the fashion industry by arranging models outdoors or in front of interesting backdrops that rivaled the clothes they were wearing. Dahl-Wolfe spent 22 years working in the fashion world before retiring from the magazine in 1958. NMWA’s collection contains more than 100 photographs by Dahl-Wolfe, including five works that feature Mary Jane Russell.

Mary Jane Russell signed as a model with the Ford Agency in 1948, just in time for the debut of the “New Look.” She was a favorite model of many photographers, including Dahl-Wolfe. One of Dahl-Wolfe’s photographs in NMWA’s collection, Mary Jane Russell in Dior Dress, Paris (1950), features Russell posing in profile and elongating her neck, while putting on elegant evening gloves. Dahl-Wolfe placed Russell in front of a luxurious background that challenges the dress, while the contrast between the two directs the viewer’s eye directly to the dress and Russell.

Louise Dahl-Wolfe, courtesy of the Louise Dahl-Wolfe Archive. © Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents, 1989

Fashion Forward Friends

After meeting on a set, Russell quickly became one of Dahl-Wolfe’s favorite models. Dahl-Wolfe’s eccentric techniques coupled with Russell’s short stature and elongated neck resulted in unconventional photographs that brought personality and life to fashion advertisements. Dahl-Wolfe valued Russell’s input on shoots, making the photographs a joint effort. “Louise was a benevolent dictator, except with Mary Jane. She’d let Mary Jane say, ‘I think the dress would show better this way’” Russell’s husband, Edward, recalled.

The photographer even broke an unwritten industry rule not to photograph the same model for more than two collections after trying unsuccessfully to find a suitable replacement for Russell. Dahl-Wolfe later said, “I hated the popular look of models in those days. I called it the ‘Candy Box’ look—all translucent white skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes. I liked yellowish skin and green eyes, and I found it with Betty Bacall, and above all with Mary Jane Russell, who was marvelous.” By the end of her career, an estimated 30 percent of Dahl-Wolfe’s photos featured Russell.

Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Plan of Paris (Mary Jane Russell in Dior Gown), 1951; Gelatin silver print, 4 x 11 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Helen Cumming Ziegler

Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Plan of Paris (Mary Jane Russell in Dior Gown), 1951; Gelatin silver print, 4 x 11 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Helen Cumming Ziegler; © 1989 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents Photograph by Louise Dahl-Wolfe

Their friendship lasted 12 years, producing some of the most iconic photographs of the time. Reflecting on their relationship, Russell said, “One was never selfish with Louise. There was an extraordinary, immediate communication of her conscientiousness, her seriousness. She was wicked, challenging, exasperating, and heavenly. It was a rare, rare, extraordinary experience. She was the most beautiful person in my working life.”

Learn about the friendship between potter Maria Martinez (ca. 1887–1980) and photographer Laura Gilpin (1891–1979), whose works are on view in New Ground through May 14, 2017.

—Madeline Barnes is the spring 2017 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Happy Birthday, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard!

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749–1803) was a celebrated female artist in 18th-century France. Labille-Guiard’s artistic career was hindered by the changes in power surrounding the French Revolution and was somewhat restricted due to her gender, but she was also awarded unusual opportunities.

Labille-Guiard received formal training under a family friend, François-Elie Vincent, because women were not allowed in the classrooms of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. Society deemed it improper for women to learn alongside men. She trained as a miniaturist, and in 1774, at the age of 25, Labille-Guiard exhibited two works at the Salon. Three years later, she broke gender norms by painting in oils, which she learned from François-André Vincent, the son of her former instructor.

Labille-Guiard was admitted to the Royal Academy on May 31, 1783—the same day as Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun. Because both women were primarily portraitists they were cast as competitors, but this was likely not the case, as they had little interaction besides their involvement in Academy Salons. The Royal Academy limited membership to four women at a time, so the simultaneous admission of two women caused controversy among members who did not support the inclusion of women. With the admission of Labille-Guiard and Vigée-LeBrun, the Academy reached its quota for women artists, together with the portrait and still-life painter Anne Vallayer-Coster and miniaturist Marie-Thérèse Reboul Vien. Labille-Guiard signed the Academy’s register as “Adélaïde des Vertues” to represent the fact that women artists risked upsetting societal expectations, which held that virtuous women belonged solely to the private, domestic sphere.

Her admittance to the Academy, commissions from Louis XVI’s sisters, and the creation of her masterpiece Self Portrait with Two Pupils (1785) increased her reputation and popularity, despite rumors spread by critics following her Academy debut. However, her career faced challenges that would slow her momentum as the French Revolution progressed. Radicals shamed Labille-Guiard for her association with the Paris elite and their lavish lifestyles. Prominent painter Jacques-Louis David did not approve of women in the Academy, and Labille-Guiard fell further out of favor. At this point, a government committee ordered her to submit works, including her largest painting, to be burned.

Labille-Guiard left Paris for the countryside as the Reign of Terror worsened. She did not abandon her painting during this time, continuing to teach students who fled with her. She eventually returned to Paris, but was unable to return to prominence under the new government. Despite working during a time of social and political upheaval, the life and career of Adélaïde Labille-Guiard is one of opportunity and strength, as she was allowed entry into the Academy in recognition of her talents, and continued to practice as an artist despite oppressive radical forces.

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

Creating Contemporary Artifacts in “Border Crossing”

Now on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Border Crossing: Jami Porter Lara presents recent work by Albuquerque-based artist Jami Porter Lara (b. 1969), who hand-builds and pit-fires clay sculptures resembling a ubiquitous icon of modern life—the plastic bottle.

The shapes and titles of Porter Lara’s sculptures reflect her interest in the artifacts of contemporary culture.

Installation view of Border Crossing: Jami Porter Lara; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Installation view of Border Crossing: Jami Porter Lara; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Form and Function

Jami Porter Lara uses ancient techniques to create her work, and she combines references to the contemporary plastic bottle with references to other vessels that humans have used throughout time. She says, “I was interested in something that might be evocative of a gourd-shape, and, of course, gourds were one of the earliest vessels used by humans. I was also making things that referred to more classical forms like the amphora, again trying to make a connection between the contemporary plastic bottle and the most ancient of iconic vessels in human history.”

Some of her vessels have human or anthropomorphic qualities: “The top of the vessel’s neck is like a little head, its bottom is evocative of feet, and any kind of narrowing in the center is like a waist. Just as that gourd shape made me think of the connection to our shared human history of using gourds as vessels, the figurative pieces have a similar message about the continuity between what’s natural and what’s human and what’s technological.”

Jami Porter Lara, LDS-MHB-WVBR-0416CE-08, 2016; Pit-fired clay, 11 x 10 x 3 1/2 in.; On loan from Debra Baxter, Photo by Addison Doty

Jami Porter Lara, LDS-MHB-WVBR-0416CE-08, 2016; Pit-fired clay, 11 x 10 x 3 1/2 in.; On loan from Debra Baxter, Photo by Addison Doty

What’s in a title?

Many of Porter Lara’s works have titles such as LDS-MHB-WVBR-0416CE-08. She borrowed her titling system from the field of archaeology, in which objects are identified by a series of numbers and letters that convey information such as where an item was found and when it was unearthed.

  • The letters in the first section refer to where the object was made. In this example, “LDS” stands for Los Duranes Studio, the name Porter Lara has given her home studio.
  • The first two letters in the second section indicate where Porter Lara harvested her clay. Here, “MH” refers to Magdalena Highway, the unofficial name of the nearby route US 60. The third letter of this section refers to the color of clay. “B” stands for “buff” or “beige.”
  • In the third section, the first letters relate to nicknames Porter Lara gives her pieces. In this example, “WV” stands for “Wedding Vase,” a double-spouted vase common in Pueblo pottery.
  • The second half of the third section refers to the process Porter Lara used to create the work. “B” indicates a work was burnished, and “R” stands for “reduced,” the firing method.
  • The fourth section of the title is the date on which the work was fired. In this example: April 2016 of the Common Era (CE).
  • The last section indicates which iteration of a shape this object is. This example is the eighth vessel Porter Lara made in this particular shape.

Visit the museum to see Border Crossing: Jami Porter Lara, on view through May 14. Learn more through the audio guide and meet Jami Porter Lara at the museum for a special Artists in Conversation program on April 6, 2017.

Adapted from text by Virginia Treanor, associate curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Julie Roberts

Paintings by Julie Roberts (b. 1963, Fflint, Wales) are both realistic and otherworldly, often focusing on the restraint of the human body and the power structure of institutions. Roberts finds inspiration in works by various artists and thinkers, as well as in memories of her own childhood.

She cites French philosopher Michel Foucault as a major source of inspiration. Artists Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger also influence Roberts’s work, particularly in her exploration of the female body and womanhood. Evidence of the artist’s upbringing is visible in her oeuvre. As a child, Roberts often spent time in a former morgue or at the nursing home where her mother worked. Medical equipment and furniture often appear in her paintings.

Julie Roberts, Gynaecology Couch, 1992; Oil and acrylic ground on canvas, 83 7/8 x 72 in.; NMWA, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection

Julie Roberts, Gynaecology Couch, 1992; Oil and acrylic ground on canvas, 83 7/8 x 72 in.; NMWA, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Roberts’s unsettling works from the 1990s lack figures. Instead, symbols of institutional management of the body, such as a straightjacket, a gynecological chair, and a nightgown, seem to float in the center of the canvas. Backgrounds containing rich color fields and subtle vertical stripes produce an “optical kind of fizzle.” Roberts’s thickly-painted objects appear in a “frenzy” against the structured and controlled backgrounds. While they suggest the human body, they are never occupied by one.

Gynaecology Couch (1992) shows an empty seat with stirrups against a deep blue background. Isolated from figures or other objects, the couch conjures senses of sterilization and solitude often associated with hospital visits. With no light source and no cast shadow, the chair appears surrealistic. Upon closer examination, exquisite details in the couch pillow reveal a deep impression, as if someone was just sitting on it. Without visual context, viewers are left to speculate about the couch’s story and purpose.

Roberts’s more recent paintings represent an aesthetic departure from her earlier work. As her practice developed, she “slowly started creeping towards the edge of the canvas.” Dormitory (2011) exemplifies Roberts’s expressive and highly stylized application of paint featuring graphic circles and lines that form distinctive patterns. This painting recalls the exaggerated perspective Surrealists like Giorgio de Chirico used in 20th-century Europe.

Dormitory also reflects Roberts’s recent interest in displaced and orphaned children in Europe during the mid-20th century. The depiction of an orphanage dormitory includes an orderly rows of beds with crisp sheets, evoking a sense of sterilization and anonymity. The room does not look like that of a child. There are no toys, decorations, or traces of life, other than the beds themselves. Even the blinds have been drawn to precisely the same height. The detachment of children from their parents in an orphanage is mirrored by the separation of human from object in her paintings. Roberts, along with her siblings, spent brief periods in foster homes growing up. This body of work, she says, “doesn’t come from an ideology, it comes from the pit inside of me, somewhere in my soul.”

—Casey Betts was the summer 2016 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.