Gallery Reboot: Domestic Affairs

Beatrice Wood, Gold Chalice, 1985; Earthenware, 12 x 8 7/8 x 8 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts; Gift of John Deardourff and Elisabeth Griffith; © Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts/Happy Valley Foundation

Beatrice Wood, Gold Chalice, 1985; Earthenware, 12 x 8 7/8 x 8 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts; Gift of John Deardourff and Elisabeth Griffith; © Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts/Happy Valley Foundation

The museum’s newly reinstalled collection emphasizes connections between historical and contemporary art. Organized by the themes of the body, nature, domesticity, fabrication, and herstory, each gallery delves into a topic explored by women artists through time and around the world.

The domestic sphere, with its daily activities and feminine associations, serves as a rich source of inspiration for many women artists. They draw subjects and materials from the domestic realm in order to uphold—or upend—cultural traditions, gender roles, and boundaries between art and craft.

Beatrice Wood (1893–1998), known as the “Mama of Dada,” gained renown for her luminous luster-glaze ceramics. Wood discovered pottery classes in the 1930s, when she wanted a matching teapot for a set of teacups from the Netherlands. Her work in ceramics and in creating a signature luster glaze earned her acclaim. Her works were featured in many solo museum exhibitions and fetched high prices at auction. Wood crafted Gold Chalice (1985) when she was 92 years old.

Angela Strassheim, Untitled (Prayer), 2005; Chromogenic color print, 30 x 40 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of The Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Angela Strassheim

Angela Strassheim, Untitled (Prayer), 2005; Chromogenic color print, 30 x 40 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of The Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Angela Strassheim

American photographer Angela Strassheim (b. 1969) portrays suburban life in the American Midwest, while making references to religion and art history. Strassheim was raised in Iowa to a born-again Christian family, whose beliefs she denounced as a teenager. Her photographs’ Christian undertones are presented matter-of-factly, but there is often an unsettling quality to the work. Strassheim’s background in forensic photography also informs her calculated compositions. Her works display recognizable scenes from daily life, but suggest that there is more than meets the eye in family life.

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Apron, 1997; Cedar, stain, and graphite, 46 x 28 x 12 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Tony Podesta Collection; © Ursula von Rydingsvard

Sculptures by Ursula von Rydingsvard (b. 1942) often take the form of domestic objects, such as Apron (1997). The artist’s medium of choice has been cedar for more than 35 years. Apron represents a traditionally feminine object wrought in a traditionally masculine medium. Like Strassheim, von Rydingsvard uses her family history as inspiration. The subject matter and medium are all carefully chosen. Household objects became dear to the artist when she moved around refugee camps with her family in Europe during and after World War II. In addition, aprons are a symbol of domesticity and comfort in many cultures. 

Women artists explore the theme of domestic affairs in various, unexpected ways. Visit the museum to see these works in the third floor galleries. Can’t visit in person? Browse #GalleryReboot on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for more collection highlights.

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

Down to a Science: #5WomenArtists Spark #5WomenScientists

For Women’s History Month, NMWA posed the question, “Can you name five women artists?” While social media users shared stories of women artists with #5WomenArtists, other science museums and cultural institutions expanded the challenge by posting content about #5WomenScientists.

Maria Merian, Plate 9 (from "Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam", second edition), 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 20 1/4 x 14 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Maria Merian, Plate 9 (from “Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam,” second edition), 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 20 1/4 x 14 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Art and science are two fields which seamlessly overlap. Both encourage close observation, experimentation, and innovation. Women are often overlooked and underrepresented in both fields. NMWA features a collection of works by women artist-scientists.

Because of their purported keen powers of observation, women artists historically were encouraged to render the natural world. After studying dried specimens of plants and animals that were popular with European collectors, botanical illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) decided to study them in their natural habitats. At the age of 52, Merian and her younger daughter embarked on a dangerous trip, without a male chaperone, to the Dutch colony of Surinam in South America. She spent two years studying indigenous flora and fauna. Her book, the lavishly illustrated Insects of Surinam, was published in 1705 and established Merian’s international reputation.

As tools for observation became more advanced, photography emerged as a new medium to explore, record, and interpret nature. Molecular biologist-turned-photographer Amy Lamb (b. 1944) continues the tradition of women artist-scientists by producing large-scale “portraits” of plants. For Lamb, observation is a vital part of her creative process. She grows most of the plants that she photographs, which allows her to become intimately familiar with their life cycles. Studying plant maturation repeatedly helps her anticipate when to have the camera ready.

Amy Lamb, “Magnolia,” 1998, Iris print, 13 1/4 in x 20 1/8 in; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, Maryland, in honor of the artist, ©1998 Amy Lamb, all rights reserved

Amy Lamb, Magnolia, 1998, Iris print, 13 1/4 in x 20 1/8 in; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, Maryland, in honor of the artist, ©1998 Amy Lamb, all rights reserved

The influence of science is a common thread in NMWA’s collection. Floral still-life paintings by Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750), cliché-verre prints by Maggie Foskett (1919–2014), and etchings by Monika E. de Vries Gohlke (b. 1940) engage with science and nature. Angela Strassheim (b. 1969), trained in forensic photography, lends a scientific eye to her oeuvre, while Michal Rovner (b. 1957) simulates the feeling of a laboratory through a video work involving petri dishes.

Continue exploring the stories of women artist-scientists. Browse a selection of #5WomenScientists posts from institutions ranging from the Field Museum, to the Biodiversity Heritage Library, the Franklin Institute, and the Science Museum, London.

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

Staging Strange: Angela Strassheim’s Photographs

Some viewers might say Angela Strassheim seems obsessed with death—her eerie photographs were once described as “CSI meets Billy Graham.” The artist’s uncomfortable upbringing as a born-again Christian and her background in forensic photography imbue her images of crime scenes, domestic activities, and oddly posed figures with an unsettling feeling.

Strassheim’s work references religion, art history, and the experience of growing up in the American Midwest. Three photographs from her “Left Behind” series (2004) and two from “Pause” (2006)—currently on view in NMWA’s third-floor galleries—are partly inspired by her family and childhood memories.

Histories Repeating

Agnela Strassheim

Installation view of Angela Strassheim’s Untitled (Savannah’s Birthday Party) at NMWA

Combining art-historical and biblical references, Untitled (Savannah’s Birthday Party) (2006) echoes depictions of the Last Supper. Strassheim transposes this scene to a suburban dining room filled with young girls—merging her memories with an iconic artistic and religious tableau. The work’s central figure meets the viewer’s gaze, creating an unsettling feeling of being watched.

Although her photographs are meticulously staged, Strassheim says that they ring “true” by representing a past feeling or memory. The artist based Untitled (Isabel at the Window) (2004) on an incident from her adolescence. The photograph’s perspective, strange crime-scene quality, and placement of the nude girl in a room alongside works of art create a sense of voyeurism and transgression. The ambiguity of Isabel’s position—it is not clear whether or not she knows she is being watched—adds to the intrigue of this investigation of power, gender, and vision.

Power and Control

Untitled (Horses) (2004) from “Left Behind” incorporates dread and humor in a playful image. The series’ title refers to the Christian concept of the apocalypse: that true believers will be raptured into heaven while the unsaved will remain on Earth for a period of chaos and violence. In the photograph, toy horses (a reference to the apocalypse) seem to flee from a young girl who is bathed in light, wearing costume wings, and reading a small Bible. To her right, a boy sleeps peacefully, while another child lurks underneath the bed to her left.

Angela Strassheim, Untitled (Horses), 2004; Edition 1/8, Chromogenic color print, 30 x 40 in.; NMWA, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

Angela Strassheim, Untitled (Horses), 2004; Edition 1/8, Chromogenic color print, 30 x 40 in.; NMWA, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

Strassheim’s restaging of the apocalypse as a children’s game and portrayal of a young girl (a surrogate for the artist’s childhood self) as a figure of authority subverts a belief that weighed heavily on Strassheim for the first 18 years of her life. Overall, the compulsively detailed staging and sense of static perfection in these photographs suggests an intense desire for control.

Horses exemplifies Strassheim’s artistic style. Polished, unsettling, and ambiguous, this photograph conjures a myriad of associations and emotions. The sense of terror lurking beneath everyday domesticity, the implication of violence disturbingly depicted through children’s bodies, and the unsettling sense of being watched make her photographs disquieting but endlessly engaging.

—Kait Gilioli is the summer 2016 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.