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.

Spotlight: Rachel Sussman

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.

Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015
Artist: Rachel Sussman
Nominating committee: Greater New York Committee / Consulting curators: Christiane Paul, Whitney Museum of American Art; Dana Miller, Whitney Museum of American Art

Sussmanedits

Rachel Sussman at NMWA; Photo credit: Laura Hoffman

Rachel Sussman mixes art and science to spark reflection on the oldest living organisms on the planet. “It’s part art, it’s part science, and it’s part philosophy,” explains Sussman. Her conceptual photograph series “Oldest Living Things in the World” delves into “deep-time and long-term thinking.”

Although her subjects have survived for millennia, Sussman brings awareness to the fragility of their existence due to recent climate change and human encroachment.

Working with a team of biologists, Sussman traveled the globe in an attempt to record 30 organisms that have survived for 2,000 years or more. Not merely scientific documentation, Sussman’s photographs serve as portraits of individual organisms—each with their own kind of dignity and personality. Sussman shot her subjects using a Mamiya 7 II camera, which she has owned since 2004. She reveals, “It has been with me through the entire project and has been to every continent.”

Organic Matters includes three large-scale photographs from her series. La Llareta #0308-2B31 (2,000+ years old; Atacama Desert, Chile) is what Sussman calls the “poster child of the project.” These alien-like shrubs are related to parsley and carrots and are comprised of thousands of densely packed branches. Sussman photographed La Llareta at an elevation of 15,000 feet in an area of the Atacama Desert with no recorded rainfall in history.

Rachel Sussman, La Llareta #0308-2B31 (2,000+ years old; Atacama Desert, Chile), 2008; Archival pigment prints on photo rag paper, 44 x 54 in.; Courtesy of the artist

Rachel Sussman, La Llareta #0308-2B31 (2,000+ years old; Atacama Desert, Chile), 2008; Archival pigment prints on photo rag paper, 44 x 54 in.; Courtesy of the artist

Spruce Gran Picea #0909-11A07 (9,500 years old; Fulufjället, Sweden) portrays the oldest organism in on view in Organic Matters. As a clonal organism, the spruce tree grows genetically identical shoots. Sussman refers to the tree as “a portrait of climate change.” The mass of low-lying branches represents how the tree appeared for 9,500 years. Over the last 50 years, a spindly trunk has grown from its center—a climate-related anomaly.

Continuously engrossed in art and science collaborations, Sussman mentions Trevor Paglen’s space-proof photos, Ed Burtynsky’s environmental landscape work, and Henning Rogge’s reclaimed war landscapes as inspiring and thought-provoking. Because her subjects are located around the planet, yet they share the capacity to inspire viewers with their evocation of time, Sussman views her “Oldest Living Things” as something “that just transcends the things that divide us.”

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Caution: Beware the Boundaries of Beasties

Patricia Piccinini’s The Stags is currently on view in NMWA’s summer exhibition Super Natural. In sleek and shimmering fiberglass, the two large sculptural pieces of The Stags combine characteristics of Vespas and fighting deer. Although Piccinini has created other works with auto-inspired elements, many of the Australian artist’s works depart from this style. Piccinini’s other sculptures typically use silicon and hair to create humanoid creatures with convincingly realistic bodies.

Together, these two distinct styles tell the story of mankind’s evolving scientific creations in both the “biosphere” and the “autosphere.” These different mediums both allow Piccinini to explore the complex intersection of natural and artificial elements—evoking wonder as well as fear at their possibly detrimental consequences.

Patricia Piccinini, The Stags, 2008; Fiberglass, automotive paint, leather, steel, plastic, and rubber, 69 ¾ x 72 x 40 ¼ in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; Photograph by Graham Baring; On view in Super Natural

Patricia Piccinini, The Stags, 2008; Fiberglass, automotive paint, leather, steel, plastic, and rubber, 69 3/4 x 72 x 40 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; Photograph by Graham Baring; On view in Super Natural

Piccinini’s automotive aesthetic incorporates biomorphic curves, contours, and dips to construct animal-automobile hybrids. She constructs creatures ranging from stags to Cyclepups and Truck Babies—what she imagines baby Vespas or semi-trucks would look like if vehicles could reproduce. Because these objects seem cute and harmless, the viewer doesn’t associate them with the negative characteristics of automobiles, inherent in industry and pollution. In a quickly advancing scientific world, technology becomes more sentient and advanced. Piccinini’s art cautions against unbridled enthusiasm for technological innovation, while also reveling in the wonders of nature.

Her humanoid sculptures also explore the consequences of progress—this time in the field of genetic manipulation. Sculptures like Big Mother and The Young Family convey what future scientists could create by combining human and animal genes. Because of their exceptionally realistic and somewhat human appearance, these sculptures elicit emotional responses.

The backstories of these works are full of trauma and confusion. Piccinini ponders where these fabricated sentient creatures would fit into the world if they became realities. She doubts that society’s ability to accept new and different creatures could keep pace with science’s ability to create them.

Piccinini’s art explores boundaries between the realms of human and machine as well as human and animal. She emphasizes the rapid evolution of technologically and genetically modified “things.” Are humans able to coexist and accept creations as creatures? Does society have enough foresight into the possible consequences of introducing hybrids? The questions Piccinini raises are acutely applicable to today’s world. She posits these questions with her technological and biological work, leaving the answers open to uncertainty and contemplation.

—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.