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

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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.

Spotlight: Jiha Moon

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: Jiha Moon
Nominating committee: Georgia Committee / Consulting curator: Michael Rooks, High Museum of Art

Jiha Moon at NMWA; Photo credit: Laura Hoffman

Jiha Moon at NMWA; Photo credit: Laura Hoffman

Jiha Moon is known for her blend of traditional materials and pop culture iconography. Like a “cartographer of cultures,” Moon is interested in creating images that can be read differently by people with different backgrounds. The Korean-born artist says, “Translating cultural incongruities is one of the most exciting and nerve-wracking experiences I have.”

Moon mixes nature and culture in Peach Mask I, Leia, and Immortal Dessert—all on view in Organic Matters. Each work incorporates the shape of a peach. A prominent symbol in the state of Georgia, the peach also represents happiness and longevity in Korean culture.

The works in Organic Matters are exemplary of Moon’s cross-cultural artistic style. In many of her works, Moon deconstructs and layers iconic images into uncharacteristic positions. Peach Mask I mixes acrylic forms together with calligraphic ink swirls. Upon closer examination, the viewer can find recognizable shapes—like those of the video-game characters Angry Birds. Through combining figurative elements and abstract, gestural strokes, Moon hopes to create kaleidoscopic works that are “somewhat familiar yet very strange at the same time.”

Jiha Moon, Peach Mask I, 2013; Ink and acrylic on Hanji paper, 38 x 38 1/2 in.; Courtesy of the artist

Jiha Moon, Peach Mask I, 2013; Ink and acrylic on Hanji paper, 38 x 38 1/2 in.; Courtesy of the artist

Although she was trained as a painter, she has also explored textiles and ceramics. Moon’s fascination with clay lies in its “long history connecting East and West. As an Asian American artist, this is such a rich area to explore and to research.” Two of her ceramic works are showcased in Organic Matters. Leia incorporates traditional colors found in Asian ceramics with Star Wars references. Similarly, Immortal Dessert melds a Cheshire cat, smiley face emoticons, and fortune cookies. All are common motifs for Moon. Fortune cookies—an American invention—are of particular interest to the artist as the “biggest misunderstanding of Asianness.”

Although her works use images from today’s culture, her materials are often traditional. She frequently uses Hanji, a Korean Mulberry paper. She said, “I buy a year’s supply when I visit Korea.”

In a gallery talk at the museum, Moon told visitors her influences are “where I travel, who I meet, and . . . things I see in nature.” She compares her surrealistic works to her life in the U.S., saying, “I always feel like I’m sort of in between places all the time and I try to find the beauty within that . . . Identity is something really complex and shifty and changeable and that type of thing is always present in my work.”

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

5 Questions with Mary Tsiongas

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. Associate Curator Virginia Treanor spoke with emerging and contemporary women artists featured in Organic Matters.

Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015
Artist: Mary Tsiongas
Nominating committee: New Mexico State Committee / Consulting curator: Lisa Tamiris Becker, UNM Art Museum

1. Organic Matters includes art that refers or responds to the natural world. How does your work The Mercurial Dog Anticipates Her relate to the theme?

Mary Tsiongas; Photo by Aziza Murray

Mary Tsiongas; Photo by Aziza Murray

My vision for this piece, which is part of a body of work called The Likenesses of Light, was to relate the interdependence of plants, animals, and humans to the interrelationships of art forms through contemporary media. The work is informed by early film history, and in The Mercurial Dog Anticipates Her, I used a botanical print by Edward Skeats (a little-known artist in the collection of the UNM Art Museum) as a backdrop or environment for the action to happen. The work shows a scenario in the desert that alludes to childhood fables and folklore but also our deep dependence on water and animals for survival. I evoke fables and folklore because as children this is one way we learn about nature; we learn that nature is animated, alive, wise, tricky, powerful, humbling, etc.

2. Is this piece representative of your oeuvre? How does it fit into your larger body of work?

It is fairly representative of my most recent works. In the series “Vanish” and “The Likenesses of Light” I use paintings and drawings of landscapes/plants/animals by other artists as backdrops and then add or animate characters that manipulate the work in some form. The figures inhabit the paintings/drawings, erase them, blur them, and change them, alluding to our manipulation of and effect on our environment. The work also suggests the potential impermanence of new media and the durability of paintings. I was hoping for a playful dialogue with painting as an older tradition; it’s a frozen frame, a created moment in time, whereas video moves, connotes lapsed time, and is more ephemeral.

The piece that is in Organic Matters has a botanical drawing of a cactus as a backdrop and in the foreground I’ve added a figure of a girl and a coyote-like dog that appear to change and alter the cactus and thus the drawing. I am hoping the work tells a story of the interdependence of humans, animals and plants.

Mary Tsiongas, The Mercurial Dog Anticipates Her, 2013; LED monitor, 2-minute HD video loop, media player, and wooden frame, 33 x 24 x 4 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Richard Levy Gallery

Mary Tsiongas, The Mercurial Dog Anticipates Her, 2013; LED monitor, 2-minute HD video loop, media player, and wooden frame, 33 x 24 x 4 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Richard Levy Gallery

3. As an artist, what is your most essential tool? Why?

I do a lot of research for my work, or perhaps more appropriately “hunting” for information, images, objects that will spark the evolution and development of whatever I’m working on. So the computer is probably the most essential tool I use. But I also go to libraries and bookstores, and I walk in the desert to find this “information” as well.

I would also have to add a skill that is essential for me, and that is editing. Not just for video editing on my computer, editing is ultimately one of the most important skills an artist can have. You have to know what stays and what to get rid of or what doesn’t belong in the work.

4. Who or what are your sources of inspiration and/or influence?

In addition to my interest in folklore and metaphysics, I also have a background in science. I am currently reading (and sometimes rereading) Julian Barbour’s book The End of Time. It’s a book on the physics of time. Several years back I became very interested in “time” and how we understand it as humans. It evolved from an interest in trees and their immensely long lives; and in dendrochronology, the study of tree ring dating. I have been reading up on different ideas of time as much as I can. A few years back I saw David Wilson’s stereoscopic video Book of Wisdom and Lies at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in L.A. I was amazed how it seemed to represent the idea that time and space are linked; it’s also absolutely gorgeous. It has been another great inspiration.

5. What’s the last exhibition you saw that you had a strong reaction to?

Last fall I was part of an exhibition called Late Harvest curated by JoAnne Northrup at the Nevada Museum of Art. It was a remarkable exhibition that juxtaposed contemporary works, some of them using taxidermy, with historical wildlife paintings. The diversity of works and the way they were installed in the space was quite entrancing. There were works in the show that were disturbing, and many that were quite inspiring.

5 Questions with Lara Shipley

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. Associate Curator Virginia Treanor spoke with emerging and contemporary women artists featured in Organic Matters.

Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015
Artist: Lara Shipley
Nominating committee: Greater Kansas City Area / Consulting curator: Catherine Futter, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

1. Organic Matters includes art that refers or responds to the natural world. How do the works from your series “Devil’s Promenade” (specifically, In the Ozarks there are Lights and False Lights) relate to the theme of nature?

Lara Shipley; Photo by Daniel Coburn

Lara Shipley; Photo by Daniel Coburn

“Devil’s Promenade” is about the relationship between rural culture and landscape, specifically Ozark culture in Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas. The project is framed around the story of a mysterious light on a wooded road, called the Spook Light. It is seen in an area referred to as Devil’s Promenade and it is said the Devil also lives on the road and steals wanderers’ souls. In this place you can either find redemption or damnation. These are two very extreme options, and it’s a fate lacking in volition. Whatever happens, happens to you.

This story takes place in one of the most consistently impoverished areas of the country, where limited opportunity creates a struggle for agency. I find it fascinating how certain physical locations become the settings for specific stories, and by going there, you are able to reflect on their significance to your life.

The two pieces in the Organic Matters exhibition reference the story of the mysterious light in the woods, putting the viewer in the vantage point of the wanderer. But in neither image is it clear if the light will provide good or harm. In the frozen state of photographic time we have no resolution to this question.

2. Are these works representative of your oeuvre? How do they fit into your larger body of work?

All of my work focuses on rural American community and its relationship to physical place. I also am a portrait maker, a writer, and a bookmaker. For me the final project is a combination of all of these elements.

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Lara Shipley, In the Ozarks There Are Lights (Devil’s Promenade), 2013; Inkjet print, 30 x 37 in.; Courtesy of the artist

3. As an artist, what is your most essential tool? Why?

Open eyes, open ears, and an open mind. They keep me from just remaking what I already think I know. Which is very little.

4. Who or what are your sources of inspiration and/or influence?

Really too many to name! Some of my initial inspirations came from novels. Growing up in the country I didn’t have access to a lot of culture. My mom was a librarian and has always been a voracious reader, and to entertain me as a teenager, would give me novels that were perhaps a little adult for my age. Through writers such as Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, Steinbeck, and Gabriel García Márquez, I began to understand symbolic thinking. I remember the excitement of first tapping into this coded language, like discovering a hole in the floor to another world. This really put me at odds with the evangelical community I grew up around, which looks at the world, and the Bible, very literally. Both fascinated me, but it was very confusing trying to reconcile the two. This tension is very present in my project “Devil’s Promenade.”

5. What’s the last exhibition you saw that you had a strong reaction to?

There are two great group exhibitions up in Kansas City right now. American Soldier, a photography exhibition at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and Making Histories, a primarily video exhibition focusing on global events at H&R Block Artspace. Both do a fantastic job, in my opinion, of bringing together artists who take a wide variety of approaches to topics more frequently relegated to journalism. The pieces in these shows are both beautiful and challenging, and the experimentation present was really inspiring and gave me a lot of hometown pride!

5 Questions with Françoise Pétrovitch

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. Associate Curator Virginia Treanor spoke with emerging and contemporary women artists featured in Organic Matters.

Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015
Artist: Françoise Pétrovitch
Nominating committee: Les Amis du NMWA, France / Consulting curator: Julia Garimorth, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

1. Organic Matters includes art that refers or responds to the natural world. How does your work relate to the broad theme of nature?

Françoise Pétrovitch; © Hervé Plumet

Françoise Pétrovitch; © Hervé Plumet

In my work, the animals are almost always associated with humans; sitting in the palm of their hands, leaning close to a face or floating over a body.

They show the presence of nature, the animal aspect of humans and that nature is the reflection of an interior world. It is a mental landscape, a dream world.

2. How does this piece fit into your overall body of work? Is it representative of your oeuvre?

Yes, it is representative of my work. This is a recent series (Les allongés, or “Lying down”), where the body is in the foreground and the bird is in an imagined space. They are big drawings where the space is undetermined.

Françoise Pétrovitch, Untitled, 2014; Ink on paper, 63 x 94 1/2 in.; Courtesy of Semiose galerie, Paris; Photography by Hervé Plumet

Françoise Pétrovitch, Untitled, 2014; Ink on paper, 63 x 94 1/2 in.; Courtesy of Semiose galerie, Paris; Photography by Hervé Plumet

3. What is your most essential artistic tool or process?

Drawing is what drives my work. What I enjoy is its speed in execution, its direct relationship to my thoughts, and its freedom of expression. I enjoy the lightness of touch which it requires.

4. What are your sources of inspiration?

I find my greatest inspiration in literature, as I feel it can be very intimate and often reveals that which we refuse to see. I am touched by the novels of Edna O’Brien, Joyce Carol Oates, Marguerite Duras, Anita Desai, Nathalie Sarraute . . . books written by women who tell, in their own way, of the intimate relationships between sisters, and between mothers and daughters; these stories resonate with my work as they describe a certain fragility and at the same time the violent relationships these women have with the world which surrounds them.

5. What’s the last exhibition you saw that you had a strong reaction to?

Recently, I went to the Bonnard show at the Musée d’Orsay. I was able to immediately “enter” into his work; one feels as though one is drowning in his ultra-sensitive, enveloping universe. It is amazing to see the same touch, the same light which emanates from the paintings from 1908 and others from 1938. It is a fabulous pictorial lesson of cohesiveness.

5 Questions with Polly Morgan

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. Associate Curator Virginia Treanor spoke with emerging and contemporary women artists featured in Organic Matters.

Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015
Artist: Polly Morgan
Nominating committee: Friends of NMWA, U.K. / Consulting curator: Lisa Le Feuvre, Henry Moore Institute

1. Organic Matters includes art that refers or responds to the natural world. How do you think your work Systemic Inflammation relates to the broad theme of nature? What does the use of taxidermy in your works allow you to do that you could not do with any other media?

Polly Morgan; Photo by Amanda Eliasch

Polly Morgan; Photo by Amanda Eliasch

Taxidermy is an ultimately futile effort to harness nature, it allows us to manipulate and control the body of an animal in a way we would struggle, or in my case would not wish, to in life. Systemic Inflammation reimagines a Victorian invention for a flying machine; where a passenger would be transported by birds shackled to a carriage. Flight, or more specifically wings, is the ultimate symbol of freedom. Seeing these birds outside of, but harnessed to, the cage presents a paradox: who is free, passenger or bird?

Most objects can be art; a urinal, a bed, etc. A dead animal presents a problem in that it decays and can therefore only exist a finite amount of time before being altered irrevocably. Taxidermy has thus allowed me to incorporate animals in my work the way other sculptors use “found objects.”

2. Is this work representative of your oeuvre? How does it fit into your larger body of work?

With this work I was thinking of the mythological Phoenix rising from the ashes. I chose to use only orange birds as I wanted them to resemble flames, and to blacken and burn the cage to make it look as though it had been dragged from a fire. Like many of my works it reflects on the cycle of life and death, so in this way is representative of my oeuvre.

Polly Morgan, Systemic Inflammation, 2010; Taxidermy and steel, 51 1/8 x 44 1/2 x 44 1/2 in.; Private Collection, London; Photography by Tessa Angus

Polly Morgan, Systemic Inflammation, 2010; Taxidermy and steel, 51 1/8 x 44 1/2 x 44 1/2 in.; Private Collection, London; Photography by Tessa Angus

3. As an artist, what is your most essential tool? Why?

It might sound trite, but my brain. My practice is more and more varied and the most consistent tool I use is my imagination. Practically speaking I wouldn’t be able to get very far with just one tool, but a scalpel would be high on the list of essentials!

4. Who or what are your sources of inspiration and/or influence?

I never know what or whom I’ll be inspired by so it’s just important to try to keep spending time with interesting people, reading books, watching films and seeing exhibitions. Many of my favorite ideas have come to me when I’m walking my dogs as it’s an opportunity to rest my mind and to cut back on aural stimulation.

5. What’s the last exhibition you saw that you had a strong reaction to?

I recently saw the work of American artist Sarah Sze at the Victoria Miro gallery in London. I love her use of everyday, even scrap, objects and think of her as being one of those alchemical artists who can elevate the mundane and give it depth and beauty.

Victorian Decadence & Visual Decay

Polly Morgan’s Systemic Inflammation is a striking artwork in Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015. Featuring small yellow and orange birds rising from a tethered position atop a charred metal cage, this work exemplifies the way that the exhibition addresses modern society’s complex relationship with the environment.

Morgan spoke about her work during Member Day at the museum. A literature student, Morgan never intended to become an artist. Unsatisfied with decorative taxidermy options for her home, Morgan decided to make a work herself. She trained with a Scottish taxidermist and adopted the scientific process as an untapped contemporary art medium.

Left: Polly Morgan, Systemic Inflammation, 2010; Taxidermy and steel, 51 1/8 x 44 1/2 x 44 1/2 in.; Private Collection, London; Photography by Tessa Angus, Right: Systemic Inflammation (detail), Photograph by Laura Hoffman

Left: Polly Morgan, Systemic Inflammation, 2010; Taxidermy and steel, 51 1/8 x 44 1/2 x 44 1/2 in.; Private Collection, London; Photography by Tessa Angus, Right: Systemic Inflammation (detail), Photography by Laura Hoffman

Morgan is absorbed by the idea that humans, “as earth-bound creatures,” constantly attempt to push the limits of flight. Her use of birds and focus on wings highlight her fascination. Morgan also draws heavily from Victorian imagery—as seen in her works containing large ornate cages and glass terrariums. Systemic Inflammation pays homage to a drawing of a Victorian flying machine. affixed with a delicate bouquet of birds and evocative of a rising phoenix.

The use of dead animals in art immediately alludes to themes of death—but Morgan’s objective is not fully focused on death. She sees the triumph of life and discusses how terrifying the fight for life can be versus the peaceful state of death.

Departing from smaller works like Still Birth (Red), Morgan attempted to “command more space, become less ornamental and more monumental.” Her focus became more about juxtaposition and finding new ways to view nature. Her most recent work creates abstract forms from the bodies of snakes—resulting in a surprising and new type of sculpture.

Petah Coyne, Untitled (#781), 1994; Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist; © Petah Coyne, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York

Petah Coyne, Untitled (#781), 1994; Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist; © Petah Coyne, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York

Another work in NMWA’s collection connects visually to Morgan’s art. Petah Coyne’s Untitled #781 is an immense wax sculpture—both incredibly foreboding and lush with excess. It seems to grow and decay before the viewer. The sugary white and pastel pink of the work do not immediately recall Coyne’s darker works. Untitled #781 is part of a series about the experience of being a woman. It references the beautiful and fanciful expectations Coyne had as a young girl. The work is both feminine and sexual in nature, reminiscent of a cake or a wedding dress. It is a work fit for a modern Marie Antoinette.

Coyne’s art is influenced by literature, personal memories, Catholic theology, and baroque sculpture.

The macabre beauty of Coyne’s art brings a Victorian flair—similar to that found in Morgan’s art—to her incredibly modern oeuvre. Coyne changes her medium constantly, using taxidermy animals and dead fish in other works.

Petah Coyne and Polly Morgan are influenced by the art of Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse. Both artists bring forth otherworldly creations through extremely labor and time intensive processes. The results are stunning works of art which connect to nature and have a monumental presence.

Visit the museum to see Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015 through September 13, 2015 and watch Polly Morgan’s gallery talk to learn more about the artist.

—Brittany Fiocca is the education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Questions with Andrea Lira

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. Associate Curator Virginia Treanor spoke with emerging and contemporary women artists featured in Organic Matters.

Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015
Artist: Andrea Lira
Nominating committee: Chile Committee / Consulting curator: Soledad García Saavedra, independent curator

1. Organic Matters includes art that refers or responds to the natural world. How do you think your work RHYTHMS relates to that theme?

Andrea Lira; Photo by Phillip Angert

Andrea Lira; Photo by Phillip Angert

Most of my work refers to the natural world, since it is directly related to the environment I inhabit. I carefully collect raw materials like plants, sounds, and observations that I later bring to the studio. Sometimes they lead me into drawings, videos, or objects. In this case, I made the video RHYTHMS while I was doing a residence in Berlin, so the materials I used were all plants and organic debris collected from the streets.

I wanted to create metaphors about our similarities to the natural world and small gestures that showed those transformations and behaviors. Each vignette is an action or gesture from nature in a way. However, nature is more than a theme to me, it is a way of understanding life’s cycles and a language. Understanding the language of nature can help us create balance and harmony in our lives. The idea of recycling and repurposing is also part of my work, since I am constantly giving new shapes and meaning to the elements I collect, cutting them, tracing them, preserving them, etc.

2. How does RHYTHMS fit into your larger body of work?

I like to experiment with different materials and mediums, from drawing to animation, objects, and installations. However, the themes I investigate are mostly inspired by the language of nature, the morphology of plants, its behaviors, complex beauty and how we interact with our environment. The video RHYTHMS was done very spontaneously. I didn’t want to force any aesthetics, but experiment. It looks very different from my earlier videos, which were more elaborate and premeditated. Overall, the important thing in my work is the process that leads to the final work and the idea. Some pieces look more finished than others, but I like to have that freedom. It allows me to create more and not get stuck with the technical side.

Andrea Lira in collaboration with Marisa Benji, RHYTHMS, 2013; Video and animation; Courtesy of the artist

Andrea Lira in collaboration with Marisa Benji, RHYTHMS, 2013; Video and animation; Courtesy of the artist

3. As an artist, what is your most essential tool? Why?

First of all, observation, and then a passion for the act of drawing and understanding the world through images. The more I observe, the more I can connect concepts and forms. Then, drawing, because of its flexibility and expressiveness. Everybody can relate to this language, we have all drawn at some point in our lives, I drew before I started to talk. Drawing always surprises me. I can pull images from the unconscious, memories, trace gestures, visualized complex patterns, emotions, music, or drawings with different materials. The important thing is the action of making a personal mark that will reflect your personality, a rhythm, a unique gesture. It is sometimes a form of meditation and similar to writing, I can express my ideas faster with a pencil.

4. Who or what are your sources of inspiration and/or influence?

Most of my inspiration comes from nature and our relationship to it. But my first influence was my father, who as a surgeon taught me to observe trees and flowers, and to appreciate insects and the fragility of the human body. We could spend hours drawing and talking about a bone.

My world is also inspired by movement, the language of the body, dance, and sound. I was influenced by performance artists such as Bruce Nauman, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Trisha Brown, who used their bodies as tools and were constantly experimenting. Then I felt very connected with minimalist artist Agnes Martin, who can express a very powerful emotion through a simple line and color. Her work can translate the beauty and peace that I find in nature. But overall, my influences are constantly changing. I am now reading a very interesting book by Manuel Lima that talks about how we understand data and information graphically.

5. What’s the last exhibition you saw that you had a strong reaction to?

The last exhibition I saw was a retrospective of Yayoi Kusama, who experimented with multiple mediums and really took control of her career as an outsider and independent artist in New York during the ’70s. Her body of work is fascinating, from her early giant Minimalist paintings to her performances and colorful installations. She had a very rich personal world and was not afraid of exhibiting her fears, political views, obsessions about the body, sex, and even fashion statements. She used the media and the press as another outlet to convey her messages. Finally, she moved back to Japan to reinvent herself as an artist in a completely changed country, where she has voluntarily lived in a mental institution. Her art was not only her profession, but maybe a type of therapy to understand and cope with her own persona. In one way or another, we want to make art so we can see beyond our physical lives and truly try to understand the mind and our deepest emotions.

5 Questions with Ysabel LeMay

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. Associate Curator Virginia Treanor spoke with emerging and contemporary women artists featured in Organic Matters.

Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015
Artist: Ysabel LeMay
Nominating committee: Texas State Committee / Curator: Virginia Treanor, National Museum of Women in the Arts

Ysabel LeMay; Photograph by Joel Salcido

Ysabel LeMay; Photograph by Joel Salcido

1. Organic Matters includes art that refers or responds to the natural world. How do you think your work Reflection relates to the theme of nature?

Nature is omnipresent in my work. I strive not only to honor its beauty, grace, and power, but to go further, to explore and learn from nature’s consciousness, its infinite procession of interrelationships. Reflection speaks of the mirror effect that a relationship with another can offer, especially when we are aware and specifically choose certain challenging relationships as opportunities to grow and to awaken to our own beauty and individuality.

2. Is this work representative of your oeuvre? How does it fit into your larger body of work?

From a technical perspective, Reflection shares the hypercollage technique I employ throughout my body of work—an enhanced approach to digital collage, in which fragments of original nature photography are woven into tableaus with the cohesion and persuasiveness of classical painting. Thematically, this specific work continues an ongoing story established with Les Naturalistes, a piece I created a few years back. It represents two people who profoundly love each other, but decide to depart from their shared relationship, to grow individually, respecting their own natural rhythms.

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Ysabel LeMay, Reflection, 2014; Color print diptych, 61 x 72 in. overall; Courtesy of the artist

3. As an artist, what is your most essential tool? Why?

Observation. I like to say, if you just take the time to relax and observe, you can have access to the gates of creativity.

4. Who or what are your sources of inspiration and/or influence?

I am influenced by my personal awakening and the things that trigger the opening of my heart. Nature, art, people . . . .

5. What’s the last exhibition you saw that you had a strong reaction to?

I recently visited Armory Week in New York City, and felt that the collective energy emanating from the artists’ works had changed since the last few years. Less shocking, less in-your-face, but more introspective and aesthetically graceful. There is a need, perhaps, to explore again the brighter side of life—a place I have been expressing visually for many years now.

5 Questions with Mimi Kato

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. Associate Curator Virginia Treanor spoke with emerging and contemporary women artists featured in Organic Matters.

Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015
Artist: Mimi Kato
Nominating committee: Ohio Advisory Group / Consulting curators: Reto Thüring, Cleveland Museum of Art; Rose Bouthillier, MOCA Cleveland

1. Organic Matters includes art that refers or responds to the natural world. How do you think your work Landscape Retreat: In the Woods relates to the theme of nature?

Mimi Kato; Photo by Robert Muller, Courtesy of Cleveland Institute of Art

Mimi Kato; Photo by Robert Muller, Courtesy of Cleveland Institute of Art

My interest in nature and landscape stems from my longing for the familiar landscape of my home, Japan. Drawing landscape from my memories, photographs, and online street views, I started to think about our daily landscape and how our lives, activities, and actions constantly affect its form.

Exploring urban landscapes, I noticed many green spaces hidden under and between urban structures, such as under highway bridges and empty abandoned lots. These green spaces do not come to mind when we talk about nature even though they function in an ecosystem, supporting the lives of plants and animals. The series “Landscape Retreat” focuses on one such landscape by analyzing human perception and categorization of nature.

2. Is this work representative of your oeuvre? How does it fit into your larger body of work?

Yes. Inspired by theater, especially Japanese traditional mask theater and contemporary Butoh, I started to perform in my work. Every figure presented in my work is me, conveying the narratives of the compositions through poses and acts. My interest, ideas, and narratives have shifted over time; however the performance aspect remains and is also present in the series “Landscape Retreat.” The process of my work, performing, sewing costumes, making props, and directing narratives, resembles the process of the theater and I often refer to my work as one-person theater.

Mimi Kato, Landscape Retreat: In the Woods (detail), 2012; Archival pigment print diptych, each print 28 x 65 in.; Courtesy of the artist

Mimi Kato, Landscape Retreat: In the Woods (detail), 2012; Archival pigment print diptych, each print 28 x 65 in.; Courtesy of the artist

3. As an artist, what is your most essential tool? Why?

The most essential tool for me is curiosity. Asking many “why” questions to even the most mundane things that surround our lives could reveal new findings.

Recently, I collaborated on a project with the invasive plants management crew from the Cleveland Metroparks. This project started with a very simple question about familiar plants from Japan in the American landscape: “Why are they here?” Following this curiosity and finding the answers, the project pushed me out of my routine studio practice, leading to a collaboration and site-specific installation. A simple question opened up a new possibility and challenges in my art practice.

I believe curiosity is an essential tool in any field and can enrich and strengthen one’s thinking process and way finding.

4. Who or what are your sources of inspiration and/or influence?

Things that surround me, especially landscapes at this moment. It is fascinating to see how we humans have been marking our existence in the landscape.

5. What’s the last exhibition you saw that you had a strong reaction to?

Forty-Part Motet by Janet Cardiff at Cleveland Museum of Art, The Paradise Institute also by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, and The Visitors by Ragnar Kjartansson at Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland.