Spotlight: Mary Lovelace O’Neal

Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today places abstract works by multiple generations of black women artists in context with one another—and within the larger history of abstract art—for the first time, revealing the artists’ role as under-recognized leaders in abstraction.

Racism is Like Rain, Either it’s Raining or it’s Gathering Somewhere (1993)

Mary Lovelace O’Neal (b. 1942, Jackson, Mississippi)

Racism is Like Rain, Either it’s Raining or it’s Gathering Somewhere (1993) combines several trademark aspects of Mary Lovelace O’Neal’s style: bold, precise color; contrasting, velvety black; and aerobic, free-spirited movement. Together, they work to illustrate marginalized experience through representative abstraction. A vibrant “cloud” of heavy brushstrokes permeates the stark, matte background, underscoring the omnipresent and unavoidable nature of racism. The piece was originally on view at the California Afro-American No Justice, No Peace? Resolutions exhibition in 1993, a reaction to the Rodney King verdict and ensuing race riots of 1992.

Mary Lovelace O’Neal, “Little Brown Girl with your Hair in a Curl”/Daddy #5, 1973; Charcoal and pastel on paper, 18 x 24 in.; Mott-Warsh Collection, Flint, Michigan; © Mary Lovelace O’Neal; Photo courtesy of the Mott-Warsh Collection, Flint, Michigan

O’Neal’s roots in activism—she was mentored by figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin during the 1960s—are inextricably intertwined with her artwork. She examines the continuing influences of racism and celebrates the resilience of black culture in her other Magnetic Fields works “Little Brown Girl with your Hair in a Curl”/Daddy #5 (1973) and “…And a Twinkle in Your Eye”/Daddy #6 (1973), both of which involve O’Neal’s signature black pigment smothering a streak of light blue.

O’Neal does not use abstraction as an elaborate metaphor for black experience; rather, she views abstraction as a more transparent way to “give voice to the ‘intangible elements of the human spirit.’” O’Neal’s repeated use of black pigment and its obvious symbolism throughout her works speaks to this unfiltered exploration of racial politics in the United States.

The artist makes a point of being clear with her intentions in her artwork, particularly in the way she titles each piece. “My paintings and their titles speak for me. They’re not attitudes of despair; they just simply state a factual existence that continues.”

Consequently, O’Neal’s paintings carry a sense of optimism and joy despite the weight of their subject matter. Although Racism is Like Rain, Either it’s Raining or it’s Gathering Somewhere portrays a push-and-pull of power dynamics, there is a whimsical freedom in the illusion of movement.

Visit the museum and explore Magnetic Fields, on view through January 21, 2018. Learn more through the Magnetic Fields Mobile Guide.

—Ilayda Orankoy is the 2017 fall publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Striking Balance: Fanny Sanín’s Process

Upon first glance, paintings by Fanny Sanín (b. 1938) look impeccably neat. Whether on paper or canvas, the decisive lines and solid colors of her geometric abstractions almost conceal evidence of the artist’s hand. The smooth, precise quality of her work may even evoke associations of computer-generated graphics. The works on view in the special exhibition Equilibrium: Fanny Sanín, however, reveal a different story. Sanín’s refined, finished works are accompanied by preparatory sketches. Through these studies, the viewer can glean insight into Sanín’s artistic process as one of the pioneers of Latin American geometric abstraction.

Fanny Sanín, Acrylic No. 2, 2011; Acrylic on canvas, 62 x 60 in.

Sanín places great emphasis on the role of drawing as a natural extension of developing a painting. “Drawings are the first and most important part of my creation…I used them to plan and reach the image that I would finally love to paint on canvas,” she says. “Color and structure go hand-in-hand in my work. It isn’t until they are both worked out in detail in my drawings that they can have meaning.”

Fanny Sanín, Study for Painting No.2 (1), 2011; Color pencil on paper, 20 x 18 in.

Through her drawings, Sanín closes the gap between a rough conceptualization and the polished, finished product. An initial work in her series of 11 drawings for Study for Painting No. 2, 2011, scarcely resembles the finished painting. Study for Painting No. 2 (1), 2011 contains a much lighter color scheme and is grounded by an hourglass shape in the center of the composition. Throughout these studies, visitors gain an understanding about how Sanín plays with recurring visual components, including her use of horizontal bands and eye-catching red shapes. It is through experimenting with variations on these motifs that she achieves optimal visual balance in both color and form.

Other works in the exhibition are accompanied by preparatory studies, though not as many. Five studies are shown alongside Study for Composition No. 1, each of them with much more similar visuals. The deep blues and bright orange remain consistent, while Sanín focuses on playing with distinct combinations of shape and form instead.

Installation of Fanny Sanín’s Acrylic No. 2 next to 11 of her studies for the work; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Above all, Sanín seeks to realize her own vision of harmony. Rather than embody or evoke representational subject matter, her forms exist on a plane of pure abstraction, an oasis from any social or political turmoil that may seem to define a generation. Sanín’s art-making methods result in timeless visuals that do not need to reference a particular time or place. Her bold experimentation with abstracted forms and colors shows her commitment to resolving chaos into harmony, finding a point of equilibrium that captures the ideal.

Equilibrium: Fanny Sanín is on view in the Teresa Lozano Long Gallery through October 29, 2017.

—Xiaoxiao Meng was the summer 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

American Abstraction—Expanded

Mildred Thompson, Magnetic Fields, 1991; Oil on canvas, 70 1/2 x 150 in.; Courtesy of the Mildred Thompson Estate, Atlanta, Georgia; art and photo © The Mildred Thompson Estate, Atlanta, Georgia

NMWA hosts the exhibition Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today, opening to the public on Friday, October 13, 2017.

Mildred Thompson, Untitled (Wood Picture), ca. 1966; Found wood and acrylic, 39 3/8 x 27 1/8 x 2 3/8 in.; New Orleans Museum of Art, Museum Purchase, Leah Chase Fund, 2016.51; Courtesy and copyright of the Mildred Thompson Estate, Atlanta, Georgia; Photo courtesy of New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, Louisiana

Organized by the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri, Magnetic Fields is the first U.S. exhibition to place abstract works by multiple generations of black women artists in context with one another.

Taking its title from a vibrant painting by Mildred Thompson, Magnetic Fields features work by 21 visionary women artists born between the years 1891 and 1981. The exhibition presents abstract art in a variety of artistic mediums, including printmaking, painting, sculpture, and drawing. These works—often incorporating unconventional materials or monumental scale—reveal the artists as under-recognized leaders in abstraction.

Thompson describes her work in the visual arts as “A continuous search for understanding. It is an expression of purpose and reflects a personal interpretation of the universe.” Similarly, artworks on view in Magnetic Fields celebrate each artist’s view of the universe through choices related to form, color, composition, and material exploration. Magnetic Fields re-contextualizes these works within the history of American abstraction.

Candida Alvarez, Puerto Rico, 25796, 2008; Watercolor, pencil, and marker on vellum, 12 x 9 in.; Courtesy of the artist, Chicago, Illinois; © Candida Alvarez; Photo by Tom van Eynde

Thompson’s works are featured alongside art by Candida Alvarez, Betty Blayton, Chakaia Booker, Lilian Thomas Burwell, Nanette Carter, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Deborah Dancy, Abigail DeVille, Maren Hassinger, Jennie C. Jones, Evangeline “EJ” Montgomery, Mary Lovelace O’Neal,  Howardena Pindell, Mavis Pusey, Shinique Smith, Gilda Snowden, Sylvia Snowden, Kianja Strobert, Alma Woodsey Thomas, and Brenna Youngblood. Together with the display of dynamic works by an inter-generational group of artists, an exhibition catalogue helps spark conversation about these artists and their place in history. Magnetic Fields represents a long-awaited milestone in honoring and recognizing the practitioners of abstraction.

Reserve your spot today for a first look at the exhibition during the opening party on October 12, from 7:30–9:30 p.m. Magnetic Fields is on view October 13, 2017–January 21, 2018. 

—Katie Benz is the fall 2017 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Wonder Women: Flappers Meet Underground Comics

NMWA could not host an exhibition called Wonder Women! without featuring several exceptional comics! The first group of objects on view in the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center (LRC) are an unlikely trio of comics by women, ranging from a 1920s newspaper, to an underground 1970s feminist comic, to a contemporary collection of dystopian comics with a cult following. Each features powerful women and truly represents their respective eras.

Nell Brinkley, “Kathleen and the Great Secret,” New York Evening Journal, November 21, 1920

Nell Brinkley, writer and artist of the earliest comic on view, brought style, romance, and strong women to the pages of William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers for three decades. Brinkley drew serialized comics in American Sunday magazine, later named American Weekly. “Kathleen and the Great Secret” ran on the cover of American Weekly in 1920 and ’21, featuring a woman who saves her fiancé from villains. Kathleen’s rescue of Jim involved a thrilling journey around the globe. Brinkley’s immense popularity as an illustrator and tastemaker influenced styles of the time. The Ziegfeld Follies featured “Brinkley Girls” dressed in her fashion, and women used hair-curling products named after her.

Left: Trina Robbins, “Girl Fight, issue 2,” 1972; Right: Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro, “Bitch Planet, Volume 1: Extraordinary Machine,” Image Comics, 2015

Fittingly, alongside Brinkley are two comic books by Trina Robbins, who also wrote two books about Brinkley’s place in comics history. While Kathleen has a wispy, Art Nouveau style, Girl Fight is angular and boldly colored. The plotlines are extreme and the dialogue is crude, but it is clear that Robbins was making a point: women in comics books can be powerful and sexual beings, not just minor characters or fantasy superheroes. Robbins also co-founded Wimmen’s Comix, the longest-running all-women comic book, which was published from 1972 until 1992.

The futuristic comic Bitch Planet, by veteran comics author Kelly Sue DeConnick and drawn by Valentine De Landro, like Girl Fight, uses extreme stereotypes to make a point about the kind of stories that have traditionally been told about women in comics and B-movies. On Bitch Planet, women are deemed “non-compliant” and imprisoned for refusing to conform to gender expectations back on Earth. This graphic novel collection of the first issues of Bitch Planet include the backstory of hero Penny Rolle, jailed for “wanton obesity,” who defies the patriarchy that tries to punish her self-acceptance. In an interview with NPR in 2015, DeConnick discussed her awe at the comic’s cult following with some fans posting photos of “NC” (non-compliant) tattoos.

Visit NMWA’s Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center through November 17, 2017 to see Wonder Women!. Located on the museum’s fourth floor, the LRC is open Monday–Friday, 10 a.m.–12 p.m. and 1–5 p.m.

—Sarah Osborne Bender is the director of the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

High Profile: Bettina von Zwehl

In celebration of NMWA’s 30th anniversary, and inspired by the museum’s focus on contemporary women artists as catalysts for change, Revival illuminates how women working in sculpture, photography, and video use spectacle and scale for expressive effect.

Bettina von Zwehl (b. 1971, Munich, Germany)

Bettina von Zwehl, Profiles III, No. 6, 2005; Lambda print, 52 1/2 x 41 7/8 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Purdy Hicks Gallery; © Bettina von Zwehl

As a teenager, Bettina von Zwehl photographed friends for fun. Ever since she has been fascinated with the human form. Von Zwehl produces tight, focused portraits that seek to capture the spirit of her subjects. Although she initially favored eliciting natural responses from her sitters, von Zwehl shifted her focus toward carefully crafted profiles. The artist’s deep appreciation of classical portraiture found on medals, coins, and painted miniatures drives her photographs, combining traditional aesthetics and modern art forms. Striving to escape sentimentality, von Zwehl constructs portrayals that limit the view of her subjects’ faces without robbing them of their individual characteristics.

The Artist’s Voice:

“For almost a decade I have been researching the human profile and the hierarchic approach to portraiture that was applied during the Italian Renaissance. There is an uncanny quality to viewing a person in profile, related to what remains invisible and untold. This method of representation may have a cold, rigid aspect, with no indication of the subject’s true character or emotion. To me it is one of the most powerful ways of representing a person.”—Bettina von Zwehl, in an artist statement

Left to right: Installation of Bettina von Zwehl’s Profiles III , a photograph by Deborah Paauwe, and Bettina von Zwehl’s The Sessions; Photography by Lee Stalsworth, Fine Art through Photography, LLC

Revival Highlight:

Von Zwehl’s works in Revival demonstrate her capacity to work on both a small and a large scale. While three portraits from her series Profiles III (2005) loom over the viewer, presenting each child’s profile in extreme detail, The Sessions (2016) on the opposite wall displays 50 small, uniquely torn images of a young girl’s silhouette.

Von Zwehl upends traditional ideas about portraiture as a direct means for exposing character and emotion. Her larger-than-life images of toddlers in Profiles III seem to capture some personality traits, but their profile format keeps much information hidden. Viewers are unable to meet the child’s gaze in each portrait. Von Zwehl’s subjects appear independent, their existence separate from adults.

Left: A visitor studies The Sessions; Right: Bettina von Zwehl, The Sessions (detail), 2016; 50 gelatin silver prints, Dimensions variable; Courtesy of the artist and Purdy Hicks Gallery; © Bettina von Zwehl

Drawing inspiration from painted miniatures made in Victorian England, von Zwehl conceals her subject’s identity by depicting her in silhouette for The Sessions. Each torn profile reveals a different aspect of the girl, showcasing the complexity of her character through many variations on a single take. This work’s title and the 50 photographs composing it collectively refer to psychoanalytic sessions and the duration in minutes of each meeting. Inspired by Anna Freud’s pioneering work in child analysis, von Zwehl’s photographs embody Freud’s belief that the mental health of even the youngest child is complex, vital, and deserving of support. By rejecting the reduction of children to relational beings and preserving their autonomy, von Zwehl hints at society’s fragmented understanding of its youngest members.

Visit the museum and explore Revival, on view through September 10, 2017.

—Xiaoxiao Meng is the summer 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Crocheted Creatures: Joana Vasconcelos

In celebration of NMWA’s 30th anniversary, and inspired by the museum’s focus on contemporary women artists as catalysts for change, Revival illuminates how women working in sculpture, photography, and video use spectacle and scale for expressive effect.

Joana Vasconcelos, Tsarina, 2015; Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro faience, ceramic glaze, and Azores crocheted lace, 55 1/8 x 27 1/2 x 39 3/8 in.; Collection of the artist; © Joana Vasconcelos

Joana Vasconcelos (b. 1971, Paris, France)

Joana Vasconcelos grew up traveling to museums across the globe with her family and her work expresses sensibilities cultivated during that time. Vasconcelos is interested in expressing universal themes through techniques and materials that are traditionally identified as Portuguese. “My creative process is based upon the appropriation, de-contextualization and subversion of pre-existent objects and everyday realities,” says the artist. Vasconcelos combines the exaggerated scale of her sculptures with the delicacy of traditionally feminine handcraft. Her explorations of the paradoxical dichotomies between power and vulnerability captivate audiences, prompting them to engage with her work.

Left to right: A museum visitor with Joana Vasconcelos’s Viriato (2005), Senator (2017), and Tsarina  (2015) next to a hanging work by Sonia Gomes in Revival

The Artist’s Voice:

“The use of crochet and the compartmentalization of forms restates the idea that we often act and live divorced from our conscience, that we don’t question our perceptions enough. Lace is paradoxical in that it was used by Portuguese women to fill the emptiness of their lives; it was the only means of expression available, the sole response to an absolutely passive social situation.”

“Lace decorates and protects, but protection is another manifestation of imprisonment. It’s for the spectator to decide what the crochet means for him, whether it’s showpiece or dungeon.”—Joana Vasconcelos, in an interview published in Joana Vasconcelos: Versailles (LeYa, 2012)

Joana Vasconcelos, Senator, 2017; Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro faience, ceramic glaze, and Azores crocheted lace, 34 5/8 x 21 1/4 x 23 5/8 in.; Collection of the artist; © Joana Vasconcelos; Photo © Unidade Infinita Projectos

Revival Highlight:

Vasconcelos’s works in Revival question viewers’ assumptions about nature. She presents large, mass-produced forms of a German shepherd, an enlarged snail, and a larger-than-life wasp—their forms covered in patterned lace. Rather than simply delight viewers, the over-sized representations of these creatures unsettle, startle, and even frighten the viewer. The intricate crochet encasing them raises more questions. Does the lace protect or imprison these animals? Does lace adorn the creatures or hide something treacherous about them?

Vasconcelos combines mass-produced lawn ornaments made in Portugal with Azores lace. Although lawn decorations and crocheted works are often associated with domesticity, Vasconcelos transforms them into high art, challenging the art establishment’s traditional conceptions of artistic value. Within the ambiguity of her combined symbols, she reveals the face of domesticity, its double-binding nature of simultaneous entrapment and protection.

Visit the museum and explore Revival, on view through September 10, 2017.

—Xiaoxiao Meng is the summer 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Every Rose Has Its Thorn: Alison Saar

In celebration of NMWA’s 30th anniversary, and inspired by the museum’s focus on contemporary women artists as catalysts for change, Revival illuminates how women working in sculpture, photography, and video use spectacle and scale for expressive effect.

Alison Saar (b. 1956, Los Angeles, CA)

Alison Saar’s mother, acclaimed assemblagist Betye Saar, exposed her to the rich mythology of many non-Western traditions. She also learned from her father, a painter and art conservator. Her signature sculptures evoke German Expressionist work in robustness, reference Greek or African mythology in name or form, and often seek to address historical or contemporary social issues in the United States. A master of varied mediums, Saar places special emphasis on the tactility of handcraft, never afraid to experiment with finding new forms for her ideas.

Alison Saar, Tippy Toes, 2007; Wood and cast bronze, 59 x 23 x 23 in.; North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, Gift of the Friends of African and African American Art, 2008.2 © Alison Saar

The Artist’s Voice:

“…It was really poignant to me, this idea that a work of art could, somehow, turn a page, or shed a light, or lead back to a source. And that’s one of the things that’s exciting about being an artist; that your work threads people to other places, and not necessarily in straight lines.”—Alison Saar, in an interview with BOMB Magazine

“I realized that by changing the function of objects, I could transform information and work ‘magic.’”—Alison Saar, in “The Saar System” in Mirabella (July 1992)

Revival Highlight:

The theme of hardship unites Saar’s works in Revival. The bodies of her figures often seem challenged, confined, or undermined by external obstacles or internal conflict, although they appear stoic in the face of suffering. Figures in many of Saar’s recent sculptures seem to suffer stabs of pain and loss by touching or consuming brambles. The motif speaks to broader themes of fertility, life cycles, human vulnerability, and hope.

Installation view of Alison Saar’s Barreness (2017)

Although the bramble’s thorns seem insidious at first, figures in works such as Tippy Toes (2007) and Barreness (2017) call that association into question. The brambles encircle and suspend the figure in Tippy Toes, uplifting while also trapping her. However, she appears calm, with her hands outstretched in a welcoming gesture. In Barreness, thorns germinate from the figure’s womb. The punning title of this sculpture plays on two words: “barrenness,” the incapability of producing offspring, and “baroness,” the title given to the wife of a baron, or to a woman who holds the title by her own right.

These suggestions of the “in-between” explore the conflicting identities often thrust upon women of color in an attempt to curtail or categorize them. As a biracial artist, Saar is interested in the complexity of personal history that rejects tidy categories.

Visit the museum and explore Revival, on view through September 10, 2017.

—Xiaoxiao Meng is the summer 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

“Bossy” Blue Gowns: Beverly Semmes

In celebration of NMWA’s 30th anniversary, and inspired by the museum’s focus on contemporary women artists as catalysts for change, Revival illuminates how women working in sculpture, photography, and video use spectacle and scale for expressive effect.

Installation view of Beverly Semmes’s Blue Gowns (1993); Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

Beverly Semmes (b. 1958, Washington, D.C)

Beverly Semmes currently resides in New York City. Semmes graduated from Tufts University with degrees in Fine Arts and History before pursuing an MFA in sculpture at Yale University. She currently teaches at the Steinhardt School of New York University and the Pratt Institute while continuing her art practice. Semmes works with a wide variety of media, including fabric, glass, drawing, photography, and performance.

Detail view of Blue Gowns

The Artist’s Voice:

“I’m looking for an open-upness quality in the forms, a place where the work is breathing. . . . Thinking about the big dress pieces, I see a certain crudeness in them. They probably end up looking quite refined, things made out of velvet or organza.”—Beverly Semmes, in conversation with Ian Berry

“Many of my sculptures from the ’90s were designed to take up space. The viewer is pushed way to the side; you can’t really walk into the room.”—Beverly Semmes, in an interview with Artforum

Revival Highlight:

Created using chiffon and crushed velvet, Beverly Semmes’s Blue Gowns (1993) aggressively fills a gallery in Revival. Pinned to the wall and flowing onto the gallery floor, these three over-sized dresses resemble cascading waterfalls or female bodies expanding in space. This relationship between the body and the landscape is further enhanced by the texture of the materials.

Visitors study Beverly Semmes’s work; NMWA, © Yassine El Mansouri

The artist’s dress installations epitomize a strong impulse that emerged among women artists in the 1990s to make work that was tactile, intimate, sensuous, messy, or excessive. Semmes tweaks conventional ideas about women, fabric, and craft by working on a monumental scale that emphasizes movement and sensation rather than dainty handwork and industriousness.

The installation also creates an immersive experience for the viewer. Semmes’s gowns force viewers to the periphery of the room, presenting the female body as dominant. The work challenges conventional expectations about how women occupy space.

Visit the museum and explore Revival, on view through September 10, 2017.

—Roseline Odhiambo is the summer 2017 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Humanly Possible: Patricia Piccinini

In celebration of NMWA’s 30th anniversary, and inspired by the museum’s focus on contemporary women artists as catalysts for change, Revival illuminates how women working in sculpture, photography, and video use spectacle and scale for expressive effect.

Installation view of Patricia Piccinini’s The Young Family; © Yassine El Mansouri

Patricia Piccinini (b. 1965, Freetown, Sierra Leone)

Patricia Piccinini lives and works in Melbourne, Australia. She earned a degree in Economic History before studying painting at the Victorian College of the Arts. In 2016, she received a doctorate in Visual and Performing Arts from the University of Melbourne, where she currently teaches. Piccinini’s work primarily explores the relationships between the natural and constructed worlds, creating hybrid creatures and machines that are simultaneously beautiful and grotesque. Focusing on ideas rather than methods, Piccinini translates her thoughts through a variety of media, including drawing, painting, sculpture, video, sound, installation, and digital prints.

The Artist’s Voice:

“My work aims to shift the way that people look at the world around them, and question their assumptions about the relationships they have with the world. I am especially interested in things that fall outside of our traditional ideas of normal or beautiful, or that step across the boundaries that we erect between things. How does contemporary technology and culture change our understanding of what it means to be human? What is our relationship with—and responsibilities towards—that which we create?”—Patricia Piccinini, in an interview with The Condition Report

“My work is all imagined. It’s all imagined in a place that is not far ahead of the space we live in now. I often think it’s about the world we live in actually. . . . But sometimes people think that I’ve got the solutions to what’s going to happen in the future and that in fact my work is a sort of precautionary tale or something of that nature, when in fact I really don’t have the answers.”—Patricia Piccinini, in a video interview with Centenary of Canberra

Patricia Piccinini, The Young Family, 2002; Silicone, acrylic, human hair, leather, and wood, 36 x 65 x 50 in.; NMWA, Gift of The Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Patricia Piccinini

Revival Highlight:

Piccinini’s The Young Family (2002) depicts transgenic beings—organisms into which genetic material from an unrelated organism has been artificially introduced. The artist collaborates with specialists from various fields of contemporary industrial manufacture to make her ideas a reality. Constructed using silicone, acrylic, human hair, leather, and wood, the sculpture shares human and animal features, eliciting both disgust and empathy from the viewer. Piccinini’s imagining of these hybrid creatures takes the form of a mother figure nursing her young. The central creature seems to have a familiar, maternal gaze, but also appears to have much more alien physiognomy. This unsettling juxtaposition sparks conversation about society’s preparedness for the ethical and emotional results of genetic manipulations.

Visit the museum and explore Revival, on view through September 10, 2017.

—Roseline Odhiambo is the summer 2017 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Veiled Meaning: Deborah Paauwe

In celebration of NMWA’s 30th anniversary, and inspired by the museum’s focus on contemporary women artists as catalysts for change, Revival illuminates how women working in sculpture, photography, and video use spectacle and scale for expressive effect.

Deborah Paauwe (b. 1972, West Chester, Pennsylvania)

Deborah Paauwe, Night Swimming, 2002; Chromogenic color print, 47 1/4 x 47 1/4 in.; NMWA, Gift of The Heather and Tony Podesta Collection

Deborah Paauwe’s interest in photography began when she took a series of self-portraits in her youth, delighting in the potential for self-revelation through tightly focused images. This fascination takes a seemingly paradoxical form in her work. Her subjects expose their bodies to the lens even as their faces remain hidden. By concealing their expressions and identities from the viewer’s gaze, Paauwe’s subjects seem both innocent and sensual.

Paauwe cites late Victorian figure painting and the tradition of concealing feelings through blank facial expressions among her sources of inspiration. The artist’s concealment of her subjects’ faces only heightens the ambiguous tension present in her work, exploring the space between friendship and hostility, innocence and sensuality, childhood and adulthood.

The Artist’s Voice:

“This sense of floating between stages is what fascinates me. As children we live in the moment but also look forward into the unknown. As adults we can drift back and forth between memory and the present…childhood always exists for us in memory. It is this state of ambiguity that surrounds identity that intrigues me.”

“I have at times both disturbed and delighted people with my images. Most of my works are constructed out of quite innocent and child-like experiences that some viewers have chosen to interpret in particularly dark and sexual ways. Though I quite readily acknowledge the validity of those interpretations it has never been my aim to create just overtly sexual imagery, it is the duality of the situations within my photographs that compels alternate readings.”—Deborah Paauwe, in an interview with Photofile

Deborah Paauwe, Tangled Whisper, 2004; Chromogenic print, 70 7/8 x 70 7/8 in.; NMWA, Gift of The Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; ; © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VISCOPY, Australia; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Revival Highlight:

Paauwe’s works Night Swimming (2002) and Lime Dream (2002) hone in on two pairs of legs, veiled by gauzy fabric. Rather than portraying her subjects as idealized, smooth-skinned objects of desire, Pauuwe often shows goosebumps dotting the girls’ legs and hangnails and blemishes on their hands. The girls portrayed are beautiful, but ultimately human. Pauuwe rejects any uncomfortable idealization or even fetishization of her subjects by embracing their imperfections.

Paauwe evokes the performative nature of social interactions between teenage girls in Tangled Whisper (2004) and Tender Locks (2004). The photographs portray two girls in what might be friendly, sensual, or tense situations. Contrast between the dark background and brightly lit subjects imbues the images with sinister undertones. Paauwe uses the body as a venue for possibilities and ambiguities, suggesting raw elegance in a state of liminality.

Visit the museum and explore Revival, on view through September 10, 2017.

—Xiaoxiao Meng is the summer 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.