Wonder and Whimsy: Anna Gaskell

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.

Anna Gaskell (b. 1969, Des Moines, Iowa)

Installation view of three of Anna Gaskell’s photographs next to a Louise Bourgeois sculpture

Installation view of three of Anna Gaskell’s photographs next to a Louise Bourgeois sculpture; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Anna Gaskell studied at Bennington College for two years before attending the Art Institute of Chicago, where she received a BFA in 1992, and later earned an MFA from Yale University in 1995. Gaskell is renowned for her work referencing mythology, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Her carefully staged photographs contain ambiguous narratives with no clear beginning or end. Viewers may detect a sense of anxiety, pleasure, or mischief in her works. Gaskell’s background in filmmaking and performance are evident in her use of dramatic lighting, awkward body distortions, and severe camera angles.

The Artist’s Voice:

“Trying to combine fiction, fact and my own personal mishmash of life into something new is how I make my work. . . . I try to insert a degree of mystery that ensures that the dots may not connect in the same way every time.”—Anna Gaskell, in NMWA’s See for Yourself card

“My muses have always been characters from novels or films or iconic figures from the past. I was drawn to these people for different reasons—because of their wisdom, intelligence, sense of humor or sense of adventure. . . . Over time I gathered them for inspiration, sometimes conjuring them back to life again for companionship.”—Anna Gaskell, letter in This Is Tomorrow

Anna Gaskell, untitled #26 (override), 1997; Chromogenic print print mounted on Plexiglas, 15 1/4 x 23 5/8 in.; NMWA, Gift of The Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Anna Gaskell

Revival Highlight:

Five chromogenic prints, drawn from her series “override” (1997) and “wonder” (1996-97), as well as untitled #104 (A Short Story of Happenstance) (2003) are on view in Revival. In “override,” the scenarios are drawn from Gaskell’s own imagination and portray several manifestations of Alice. In untitled #26 (override), the model pictured in her blue pinafore and yellow cotton dress appears to plot a revenge or escape, seeming both innocent and spiteful, a duality that mirrors the emotional confusion often experienced by adolescents.

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.

Returning the Gaze: Lalla Essaydi

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.

Lalla Essaydi, Bullets Revisited #20, 2014; Chromogenic print mounted on aluminum, 30 x 40 in.; Courtesy Miller Yezerski Gallery © Lalla Essaydi

Lalla Essaydi, Bullets Revisited #20, 2014; Chromogenic print mounted on aluminum, 30 x 40 in.; Courtesy Miller Yezerski Gallery © Lalla Essaydi

Lalla Essaydi (b. 1956, Marrakesh, Morocco)

Born and raised in Morocco, Lalla Essaydi now lives and works in New York. She received her MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University in 2003 and has since participated in several major exhibitions around the world.

Essaydi’s intricately staged photographs not only draw the viewer in with their scale and beauty, but go further to challenge 19th century Orientalist mythology, which portrayed Arab women as sexual objects for male fantasy. While she often imitates the poses of Orientalist painters, she controls the gaze. Essaydi portrays her subjects clothed and covered in henna calligraphy. This stylistic choice challenges the tradition of calligraphy as a male-dominated art form.

The Artist’s Voice:

“In my art, I wish to present myself through multiple lenses—as artist, as Moroccan, as traditionalist, as Liberal, as Muslim. In short, I invite viewers to resist stereotypes.”—Lalla Essaydi, artist’s website

“There are so many layers to my work, and some of them are just for me. If the viewer does not discover it on their own, I’m not going to talk about it because I have always been told how to behave, what to say, how to see things, how to think, and I don’t want to impose that on the viewers by stating everything. I do what I do for myself, before anything else. ”—Lalla Essaydi, interview in Africa is a Country

Lalla Essaydi, Bullets Revisited #3, 2012; Triptych, chromogenic prints on aluminum, 150 x 66 in.; Courtesy of the artist, Miller Yezerski Gallery, Boston, and Edwynn Houk Gallery, NYC

Lalla Essaydi, Bullets Revisited #3, 2012; Three chromogenic prints mounted on aluminum, 66 x 150 in. overall; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Purchased with funds provided by Jacqueline Badger Mars, Sunny Scully Alsup and William Alsup, Mr. Sharad Tak and Mrs. Mahinder Tak, Marcia and Frank Carlucci, and Nancy Nelson Stevenson; © Lalla Essaydi

Revival Highlight:

Two of Essaydi’s photographs from her “Bullets Revisited” series are on view. A recent acquisition into NMWA’s permanent collection, the triptych Bullets Revisited #3 (2012) portrays a reclining woman, whose skin and garments are covered in henna calligraphy, against a background embellished in silver and gold bullet casings. By presenting this photograph in a triptych format, the fragmentation of the body denies a voyeuristic view of the figure. In Bullets Revisited #20 (2014), she cocooned her seated model with a cape encrusted with similar casings. Essaydi explains her use of bullets as a commentary on violence against women in a new post-revolutionary era following the Arab Spring.

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.

Delicate & Dangerous: Cathy de Monchaux

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.

Cathy de Monchaux, Clearing the Tracks Before They Appear, 1994; Mixed media, 33 x 33 x 3 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Cathy de Monchaux; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Cathy de Monchaux, Clearing the Tracks Before They Appear, 1994; Mixed media, 33 x 33 x 3 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Cathy de Monchaux; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Cathy de Monchaux (b. 1960, London, England)

Although at first glance Cathy de Monchaux’s work seems to mimic bodily forms, closer inspection reveals an act of fusion at work. With obsessive attention to detail, de Monchaux joins soft, vulnerable, seemingly organic components with sharp metallic points or hooks. The marriage of paradoxical materials elicits contradictory feelings from her audience. While the flesh-like material evokes an uncomfortable recognition, the cruel, protruding metals inspire an awed fear; if the soft, voluptuous shapes summon lust, the jutting spikes repulse empathy. 

The Artist’s Voice:

“I use the erotic as a metaphor for angst. A lot of people’s angst comes from how they relate to other human beings, and a lot of that is to do with attraction and repulsion. Every relationship becomes fraught after the first burst of enthusiasm, and I suppose I use the whole erotic thing as a metaphor for that fraught-ness.”—Cathy de Monchaux, in an interview with The Telegraph

Revival Highlight:

Rather than rely on representation, de Monchaux uses the power of suggestion to draw in her viewer, promising manifold possibilities within a singular form. Her luxurious wall pieces Don’t Touch My Waist (1998) and Clearing the Tracks Before They Appear (1994) lure the viewer in with appearances evocative of sumptuous, feminine clothing. But the former’s jagged hooks and the latter’s subtle metal teeth keep any would-be-wearers at bay, promising pain in place of any decorative pleasure that might otherwise be derived. Blending pain and pleasure, distance and proximity, injury and protection, de Monchaux simultaneously evokes the joys and the fears of femininity, revealing how eroticism encompasses the whole spectrum of danger and safety.

Cathy de Monchaux, Red, 1999; Brass, copper, velvet, leather, canvas, steel, graphite, and thread, 14 x 46 x 34 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Cathy de Monchaux; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Cathy de Monchaux, Red, 1999; Brass, copper, velvet, leather, canvas, steel, graphite, and thread, 14 x 46 x 34 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Cathy de Monchaux; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

A floor sculpture featured in Revival, Red (1999), contains fewer elements of dangerous elegance, opting instead for a more subtle approach. It appears less threatening and direct than both hanging works, lacking sharp blades or hooks. Instead the work contains a cascading center that blossoms into tender, fleshy velvet folds. But for all its sumptuousness, the central structure seems contained within the base, suggesting constriction that the surrounding belts only complement. Red’s foreboding presence underscores de Monchaux’s capacity for creating disquieting work in all shapes and forms.

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

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

Mixed Media Majesty: Petah Coyne

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 Petah Coyne’s Untitled #781 (1994); Photo: Yassine El Mansouri

Installation view of Petah Coyne’s Untitled #781 (1994); Photo: Yassine El Mansouri

Petah Coyne (b. 1953, Oklahoma City)

Called the “queen of mixed media,” Petah Coyne creates attention-grabbing sculptural works and photographs. Examples of both are on view in Revival. Her sculptures incorporate unusual materials like wax, sand, silk flowers, and taxidermy animals. Coyne’s massive forms are often seen suspended from the ceiling or snaking up gallery walls. She breathes new life into objects that may not otherwise be used, and incorporates obscured forms of the human body. Coyne spends years with each piece, and her creative process is as mysterious to her as the works themselves appear to viewers.

The Artist’s Voice:

“When material seems devoid of life, of possibility, I want even more to make something of it. I have an obsessive attraction to these kinds of materials. They are functionless yet carry all sorts of associations and memories.”—Petah Coyne, interview with Carrie Pryzbilla

“All of my pieces seem fragile. But that is deceiving, because they’re all begun with steel understructures. Yet I want each one to look incredibly delicate and to have that feminine sense of appearing soft and seductive. But as any number of women have shown, we have an internal strength and drive that is hard to fathom.”—Petah Coyne, interview in Sculpture Magazine

Installation view of Petah Coyne’s Untitled #1287 (Tati) (2009); Photo: Yassine El Mansouri

Revival Highlight:

Revival features sculptural and photographic work by Coyne that can evoke a range of emotions. Her photograph Untitled #885 (Saucer Baby) (1997) evokes feelings of playfulness, like the child in the pool, but also has a haunting quality. The intrigue and extravagance of the layers of wax and other media in her large-scale works Untitled #1287 (Tati) (2009) and Untitled #781 (1994) jog memories and form new associations in the viewer’s mind.

Untitled #1287 (Tati) features a taxidermy goose diving into a swirl of deep purple velvet and wax-dipped silk flowers. Coyne’s use of a stuffed bird and fake flowers recall associations with the past-life of “dead” objects. Lush and dramatic, Coyne’s work presents a spectacle that grabs and holds the viewer’s gaze.

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

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

Hair’s the Thing: Sonya Clark

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.

Sonya Clark (b. 1967, Washington, D.C.)

Sonya Clark, Cotton to Hair, 2012; Cotton and human hair, 14 1/2 x 12 1/2 x 5 in.; Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Sonya Clark, Cotton to Hair, 2012; Cotton and human hair, 14 1/2 x 12 1/2 x 5 in.; Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Sonya Clark is a multimedia and textile artist of Afro-Caribbean descent based in Richmond, Virginia. Clark’s maternal grandparents, a tailor and a woodworker, and cultural background inspired her interest in the arts and her use of non-traditional materials.

Her works explore racial identity and the connotations assigned to various everyday objects, as well as the double meaning these objects can hold for African American communities. Working with combs, money, flags, and—most strikingly—human hair, Clark examines the intricacies of African American identity. She often uses these quotidian materials to create portraits of prominent black figures from American history, including Madame C.J. Walker and Barack Obama.

The Artist’s Voice:

“I am instinctively drawn to objects that connect to my personal narrative as a point of departure: a comb, a piece of cloth, a penny, or hair. . . . I question these collective meanings. My stories, your stories, our stories are held in the object. In this way, the everyday ‘thing’ becomes a lens through which we may better see one another.”—Sonya Clark, artist statement

“Here’s one of the things about hair—it brings us together, our DNA is in our hair; we spend a fair amount of time primping ourselves. Hair becomes one of those things we can look racially past ourselves. It’s a way in which we’re all connected to our ancestors; hair brings us together and it separates us.”—Sonya Clark, interview in The Roanoker

Sonya Clark, Hair Wreath, 2012; Human hair and wire, 13 x 13 x 2 in.; Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Sonya Clark, Hair Wreath, 2012; Human hair and wire, 13 x 13 x 2 in.; Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Revival Highlight:

Two works by Clark, Hair Wreath (2012) and Cotton to Hair (2012) are on view in Revival. In both Clark incorporates human hair to reflect on racial identity and cultural prejudices. By using wire to bind strands of dark hair, Clark’s Hair Wreath can be seen as an adornment—much like hair itself is often decorative.

Using human hair to question social issues exemplifies Revival’s theme of artists manipulating scale and spectacle in order to achieve the desired expressive effect in their works. By combining the recognizable forms of both hair and a wreath in an unexpected juxtaposition, Clark holds the viewer’s attention. One of the smaller works in the exhibition, Hair Wreath encourages audiences to look closer, which may lead to a deeper examination of their own relationship to the work.

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

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

Not So Itsy Bitsy: Louise Bourgeois

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 Louise Bourgeois’s Topiary, 2006 by work by Anna Gaskell (left) and Deborah Paauwe (right); Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

Installation view of Louise Bourgeois’s Topiary, 2006, in front of photographs by Anna Gaskell (left) and Deborah Paauwe (right); Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

Louise Bourgeois (b. 1911, Paris, d. 2010, New York)

Louise Bourgeois paved the way for women artists and sculptors throughout her long career. She began studying art after the death of her mother in 1932. She began producing large-scale sculptures shortly after moving to New York in the late 1930s. After decades of work, Bourgeois gained recognition when, in 1982 at the age of 70, she received a retrospective at MoMA. Following the exhibition, institutions around the world acquired Bourgeois’s works and she received international acclaim for the last 30 years of her career.

The Artist’s Voice:

“The spiders were an ode to my mother. She was a tapestry woman, and like a spider, was a weaver. She protected me and was my best friend.”

“I want to create my own architecture so that the relationships of my forms and objects are fixed. Sometimes I need the large scale so that the person can literally move in relationship to the form. The difference between the real space and the psychological space interests me and I want to explore both. For example, the spiders, which are portraits of my mother, are large because she was a monument to me. I want to walk around and be underneath her and feel her protection.”—Louise Bourgeois, interview in The Guardian

Louise Bourgeois, Spider III, 1995; Bronze, 19 x 33 x 33 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay; Art © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Louise Bourgeois, Spider III, 1995; Bronze, 19 x 33 x 33 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay; Art © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Revival Highlight:

Revival features three sculptures by Bourgeois, situated in the exhibition’s three central themes of the body, the child, and other creatures. Topiary (2006) represents a pre-pubescent female figure with a seed head. Another sculpture, Clutching Hands (1990), depicts a balloon-like pair of carved hands atop a marble block. The exhibition also includes one of her signature spider forms, Spider III (1995), recently acquired by NMWA.

The resurgence of the spider in Bourgeois’s sculptures from the mid-1990s, including Spider III, is evidence of the lasting importance this creature had in the artist’s imagination. Bourgeois associated the spider with protectiveness and frequently remarked that her mother, Joséphine, shared spiders’ admirable attributes of patience, industriousness and cleverness. Although Bourgeois saw a nurturing quality in spiders, she understood that they can evoke a fearful response in others. The cast-bronze medium allowed her to create a rough surface texture that gives this creature a dynamic quality, capturing spiders’ characteristic skittering motion.

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

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

Can Art Rouse the Spirit? Experience “Revival” this Summer!

On June 23, NMWA’s second floor will come alive with brilliant contemporary sculpture and photo-based art by 16 women artists in the summer exhibition Revival. The show explores the featured artists’ representations of the body, the child, and other creatures through a remarkable range of media, scale, and techniques.

Lalla Essaydi, Bullets Revisited #3, 2012; Three chromogenic prints mounted on aluminum, 66 x 150 in. overall; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Purchased with funds provided by Jacqueline Badger Mars, Sunny Scully Alsup and William Alsup, Mr. Sharad Tak and Mrs. Mahinder Tak, Marcia and Frank Carlucci, and Nancy Nelson Stevenson; © Lalla Essaydi

Lalla Essaydi, Bullets Revisited #3, 2012; Three chromogenic prints mounted on aluminum, 66 x 150 in. overall; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Purchased with funds provided by Jacqueline Badger Mars, Sunny Scully Alsup and William Alsup, Mr. Sharad Tak and Mrs. Mahinder Tak, Marcia and Frank Carlucci, and Nancy Nelson Stevenson; © Lalla Essaydi

Hanging sculptures, video projections, and large-scale photographs create immersive, mesmeric environments while smaller meticulous works draw the viewer close, beckoning toward sensations that spark memory and emotion. Each artist connects to the unconscious through highly allusive depictions of human and other animal bodies. The artists in Revival employ a wide range of materials in their works. Working with hair, yarn, velvet, wax, marble, found objects, taxidermied birds, and lens-based media, to name a few, these artists explore materiality in meaningful and impactful ways.

In the triptych from the series Bullets Revisited #3 (2012), Lalla Essaydi portrays a reclining woman with her face turned toward the viewer, confronting the historical Orientalism of Western artists, particularly sexualized depictions of women. Upon a closer look, the viewer will notice that the figure’s body is covered in henna calligraphy, challenging the tradition of calligraphy as a male-dominated art form. The woman’s dress and surroundings are elaborately decorated with silver and gold bullet casings. Essaydi explains her use of bullet casings as a commentary on violence against women in a new post-revolutionary era following the Arab Spring.

Sonya Clark, Cotton to Hair, 2012; Cotton and human hair, 14 1/2 x 12 1/2 x 5 in.; Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Sonya Clark, Cotton to Hair, 2012; Cotton and human hair, 14 1/2 x 12 1/2 x 5 in.; Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

In Cotton to Hair (2012), Sonya Clark juxtaposes a boll of cotton with human hair to allude to the history of slavery in the U.S., acknowledging cotton as a key contributor to U.S. trade and wealth in the early 1800s. Clark combines cotton with a tuft of dark human hair, referencing African American slaves who worked in the fields to create this wealth.

The exhibition features powerful works by Louise Bourgeois, Petah Coyne, Alison Saar, Joana Vasconcelos, Patricia Piccinini, alongside other artists featured in NMWA’s collection. Revival illuminates women who regenerate sculpture and photo-based art to profound expressive effect. A survey of the museum’s collection in its 30th year inspired this exhibition, which is enriched by important loans from public and private collections as well as artists’ studios.

Visit the museum and see Revival, on view from June 23 to September 10, 2017.

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