Flights and Frights of Fancy

With over one thousand unique works, NMWA has one of the nation’s most extensive collections of artists’ books. Selections are always on display in the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center, but curators often collaborate so that book arts also join other art objects in a special exhibition. Ten artists’ books in Super Natural reveal that the book is an effective medium for addressing the exhibition’s central question: “What is natural?”

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Kerry Miller, Britain’s Birds and Their Nests, Mixed media hand-cut assemblage, 11 x 20 1/2 x 2 3/8 in.; On loan from Kerry Miller; Photo credit: Laura Hoffman

Two of these featured artists’ books are Britain’s Birds and Their Nests (2015) by Kerry Miller, and four and twenty black birds (2004–07) by Carol Todaro. These entrancing works are linked not only by their medium and their focus on nature, but by their specific focus on birds.

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Detail of Britain’s Birds and Their Nests

Birds have a long history of intricate symbolism in literature and art. Depending on the species and context, birds can stand for a plethora of ideas ranging from resurrection to greed.

Because of their ability to soar to heights that mankind cannot naturally reach, birds commonly represent freedom.

Bursting from the confines of a textbook’s binding, the winged creatures in Britain’s Birds and Their Nests embody carefree liberation. The viewer can almost hear the cacophonous sounds issuing from their open beaks.

Kerry Miller extracts the text in a natural history book to reveal a three-dimensional riot of colorful birds. Miller states that the purpose of her work is to release images from books, and here she successfully delivers the birds from the constraints of cold, scientific fact. She allows her birds to take ownership over text-based analyses of their biology and behavior.

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Carol Todaro, four and twenty blackbirds; Table and ink drawing on paper; On loan from the artist; Photo credit: Laura Hoffman

While Miller’s birds seem liberated, the blackbird in Carol Todaro’s large-scale book work appears to be irreversibly trapped within the graphite-laden pages. This blackbird’s disembodied wings are laid flat upon a black stool while being spread thin over translucent pages. The title of the piece, as well as the dark hue of the graphite, alludes to a haunting nursery rhyme that details the killing of many blackbirds for human consumption.

The eerie tone of Todaro’s book contrasts with Miller’s blithe one. Both allow birds to interact with their book medium, but one compares the motion of a wing to the opening of a page, and the other shows birds flying from a book’s leather binding. In works by these artists, the bird can remain a symbol of freedom or, alternatively, have its wings clipped.

—Christy Slobogin was the summer publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Merian’s Daughters: Monika E. de Vries Gohlke, Amy Lamb, and Janaina Tschäpe

Join NMWA on September 3, when contemporary artists engage in conversation about their “artistic foremother” Maria Sibylla Merian. During Merian’s Daughters, Super Natural artists Amy Lamb, Janaina Tschäpe, and Monika E. de Vries Gohlke will discuss their disparate ways of dealing with nature in their work. The three artists credit groundbreaking 17th-century artist and scientist Merian, whose work is also on view in Super Natural, as a major influence on their performances, photography, videos, and prints.

Amy Lamb, Purple Datura, 2015; Digital pigment print of photograph, 34 x 34 in.; Promised gift of the artist and Steven Scott Gallery, Baltimore; © 2015 Amy Lamb, all rights reserved

Amy Lamb, Purple Datura, 2015; Digital pigment print of photograph, 34 x 34 in.; Promised gift of the artist and Steven Scott Gallery, Baltimore; © 2015 Amy Lamb, all rights reserved

Maria Sibylla Merian revolutionized botany and zoology through her studies of flora and fauna. At age 52, Merian and her younger daughter embarked on a dangerous trip to the Dutch colony of Suriname, in South America, without a male companion. She spent two years studying and drawing the indigenous animals and plants. Her lavishly illustrated Insects of Surinam established her international reputation.

Through studying insects, Merian paved the way for centuries of artist-scientists, including Amy Lamb, who cites Merian as a major influence on her career. A cellular biologist-turned-artist, Lamb admires women like Merian for their ability to cross over to the art world.

Lamb’s photographs emphasize the formal properties of her subjects—the color of a leaf, the ruffled edges of a petal, or the reflective qualities of a dew drop. Her photographs recall the painstaking detail found in Merian’s scientific drawings. While Merian emphasized biological detail to foster better scientific understanding, Lamb’s large-scale images elevate the minutiae of her flowers to monumental status.

Janaina Tschäpe, Moais from “100 Little Deaths,” 2002; Chromogenic color print, 31 x 47 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

Janaina Tschäpe, Moais from “100 Little Deaths,” 2002; Chromogenic color print, 31 x 47 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

Talented and independent, Merian set an example for women like Janaina Tschäpe. Merian ventured beyond 17th-century societal norms by traveling and studying in a foreign country with only her daughter as a companion. Tschäpe also traveled to remote locales for the benefit of her art. She created her “100 Little Deaths” series by photographing her body in natural environments around the world—from Capri to Angkor Wat.

Left: Monika E. de Vries Gohlke, “Caiman” After Maria Sibylla Merian and Daughters, 2012; Etching and aquatint, hand colored, on paper, 11 1/4 x 15 1/4 in.; NMWA, Gift of the artist; Right: Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 69 from Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam, 2nd Ed., 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 14 1/4 x 20 1/2 in.; NNMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Left: Monika E. de Vries Gohlke, “Caiman” After Maria Sibylla Merian and Daughters, 2012; Etching and aquatint, hand colored, on paper, 11 1/4 x 15 1/4 in.; NMWA, Gift of the artist; Right: Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 69 from Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam, 2nd Ed., 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 14 1/4 x 20 1/2 in.; NNMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Merian’s influence is evident in Monika E. de Vries Gohlke’s oeuvre. One of Gohlke’s prints, “Caiman” After Maria Sibylla Merian and Daughters, is similar to Merian’s composition showing a caiman struggling with a snake, which is on view next to Gohlke’s drawing. The French phrase “L’homage”—visible on the ground below the fighting figures—underscores the relevance of Merian’s preceding work. Spiders and butterflies along the top of the drawing allude to Merian’s renowned artistic and scientific work on insects. Merian’s illustrations cover an adjacent wall within the same gallery as Gohlke’s Caiman.

Hear from the artists in person at NMWA about their work and Merian’s persistent influence—register today through the online calendar.

—Christy Slobogin was the summer publications and marketing/communications 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

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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 Fast Facts: Patricia Piccinini

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Patricia Piccinini, whose work is currently on view in Super Natural.

Patricia Piccinini (b. 1965)

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 Laura Hoffman; On view in Super Natural

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 Laura Hoffman

1. Push/Pull

Australian artist Patricia Piccinini constructs unexpected amalgamations. Her sculptures combine human and beastly features and transform vehicle parts into wild animals. The Young Family (2002–3) and The Stags (2008), both in NMWA’s collection, have been known to simultaneously allure and repel visitors.

2. Material Source

Piccinini explores the tension between nature and manufacture through her subjects and mediums. She typically employs a combination of natural and synthetic materials, blurring the lines between these two realms. The Young Family includes an unsettling mix of human hair and skin-like silicone developed for special effects in movies.

3. Source Material

The artist draws inspiration from sources as varied as anatomical models, botanical illustrations, photographs of newborn animals, consumer and car culture, and works by the 16th-century Italian painter Caravaggio.

Patricia Piccinini, The Young Family, 2002-3, Silicon acrylic, human hair, leather, timber; 36 x 65 x 50 in; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

Patricia Piccinini, The Young Family, 2002-3, Silicon, acrylic, human hair, leather, timber, 36 x 65 x 50 in; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

4. Artist Statement

The Young Family . . . [represents] a mother creature with her babies,” Piccinini says. “I imagine this creature to be bred for organ transplants. . . . We are trying to do [this] with pigs, so I gave her some pig-like features. That is the purpose humanity has chosen for her . . . [yet she] wants to exist for [her own] sake.”

5. Family Ties

The Stags is one of four works Piccinini created that use vehicle parts to evoke animal forms and the intimate relationships among these creatures. Taken as a series, the viewer empathizes with and imagines the narrative of this tight family unit.

—Addie Gayoso is associate educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

 

Louise Bourgeois: By the Book

The exhibition catalogue Louise Bourgeois. Structures of Existence: The Cells (Prestel Publishing and Haus der Kunst, 2015) showcases the artist’s work creating Cells, a series of architectural sculptures that she worked on for twenty years, from 1986 through 2008.

These embody the belief of Bourgeois (1911–2010) that “space does not exist, it is just a metaphor for the structure of our existences.” The Cells are enclosures or cage forms, often incorporating mirrors, dummy-like figures, or staircases leading nowhere—nuanced and provocative spatial metaphors for her own personal history. The book compiles essays and conversations revealing Bourgeois’s influences and the way that her childhood experiences, coupled with recondite concepts from her early works, form the Cells series.

The book’s sections provide a comprehensive perspective on how Bourgeois’s life and memories influenced the Cells. Texts include conversations with Bourgeois’s long-time assistant Jerry Gorovoy, essays by renowned scholars, a short biography, and selected statements and quotations from the artist herself.

Several essays focus on a single Cell, such as the elaborate and cage-like Passage Dangereux (1997), and explain how the piece relates to Bourgeois’s oeuvre and biography. Other contributors focus on the abstract meanings behind the emotion-laden sculptural constructions. These complex emotions are rooted in Bourgeois’s difficult childhood, her aggression toward her philandering father, and the constant tension between her desires to remember the past and to forget it. Gorovoy states, “The Cells tell stories and are definitely autobiographical, but the emotions are universal.”

Exhibition connection:

Louise Bourgeois, Hairy Spider, 2001; Drypoint on paper, 19 x 16 in.; On loan from the Holladay Collection; Art © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA New York; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Louise Bourgeois, Hairy Spider, 2001; Drypoint on paper, 19 x 16 in.; On loan from the Holladay Collection; Art © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA New York; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Currently on view at NMWA in Super Natural, Louise Bourgeois’s drypoint print Hairy Spider depicts a spider, a common motif in the artist’s work.

Bourgeois associated spiders with patience, and she often likened them to her mother, whom she saw as patient to a fault when it came to handling her father’s adultery with her live-in nanny.

To capture her mother’s presence in painful memories from her childhood, Bourgeois included spiders in some of the Cells featured in the exhibition catalogue—the book reveals that Bourgeois often felt frustrated that her patient mother calmly tolerated this infidelity. The drypoint in Super Natural connects back to Bourgeois’s oft-revisited themes of spiders, patience, and motherhood.

—Christy Slobogin is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

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.

Flowers, Fruit, and Fatality

“What is natural?” is the intriguing question surrounding Super Natural. Two of the exhibition’s artists, Rachel Ruysch and Sam Taylor-Johnson, answer this query through their respective works of art. Ruysch’s painted still life and Taylor-Johnson’s video Still Life suggest that decay, death, and the passage of time are the most essential and inevitable processes in our natural environment.

Society has traditionally aligned women with nature because both can be pretty, graceful, and demure. Many of the women artists in Super Natural, including 17th-century artist Rachel Ruysch, challenge these characterizations.

Rachel Ruysch, Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge, ca. 1680s; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Rachel Ruysch, Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies, and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge, ca. 1680s; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Ruysch and later artists chose to infuse their art with the scientific, strange, and abject elements of nature.

Ruysch’s Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies, and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge seems to depict a thriving bouquet of flowers. However, upon closer examination the arrangement contains fatal signs of decay.

The composition’s central pink rose wilts, showing the beginning stages of decomposition. Deep purple flowers, half-hidden at the rear of the bouquet, also droop. Their shadowy hue and sagging posture foreshadow the bleak future in store for their upright counterparts. Holes in the bouquet’s large green leaves also suggest impending deterioration. These subtle elements of decay allude to the passage of time and the subsequent demise of the plants.

Even the still life’s title reminds viewers that these natural organisms will not last forever. The bouquet stands in an urn, which sits upon a stone ledge—neither setting encourages growth or life.

While Ruysch’s painting subtly alludes to decomposition, Taylor-Johnson’s video shines a spotlight on the process. In her video, a plate of fruit disintegrates over several weeks. The time-lapse video compresses the breakdown to just over three minutes. As the decay progresses, the fruits seem to sigh and exhale their final breaths slowly, collapsing into an unrecognizable pile of rot.

Like Ruysch, Taylor-Johnson does not shy away from the foul qualities of natural decay. Unlike Ruysch, Taylor-Johnson has access to modern resources and technology that allow her to depict decomposition over an extended period of time.

Even without Taylor-Johnson’s technology, Ruysch does a masterful job of alluding to the unavoidable fate of her flowers. Both artists imbue their portraits of nature with the most natural life process of all: death. These works, as well as the other Super Natural works by Audrey Niffenegger, Janaina Tschäpe, Maria Sibylla Merian, and Maggie Foskett give “death” as the simple yet poignant answer to “What is natural?”

—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.

Women with Wanderlust

During the press preview for Super Natural, NMWA Chief Curator Kathryn Wat stressed one fact above all others about featured artist Maria Sibylla Merian: this woman was radical. Not only did she divorce her husband—something that was socially taboo in the 17th century—but she traveled to Suriname accompanied only by her daughter.

Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 18 from Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam, 2nd Ed., 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 20 1/2 x 14 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 18 from Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam, 2nd Ed., 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 20 1/2 x 14 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Merian had grown bored with the dry and lifeless specimens of exotic insects that were available for study in the Dutch provinces. She wanted to see, study, and draw the creatures from life.

Even though her Dutch homeland was more liberal than other European countries, women in Merian’s society were restricted to sheltered traveling experiences such as the Grand Tour or family holidays. Sojourns outside of Europe almost never happened for women. It was certainly not conventional to go overseas without a male travel companion. Yet Merian did exactly that, refusing to bend to the social mores that controlled female exploration so strictly. In 1699, at age 52, the artist-naturalist embarked on her journey to South America—to Suriname, then a Dutch colony—to follow her passion for studying and depicting insect metamorphoses.

When one examines Janaina Tschäpe’s contemporary photographs, also on view in Super Natural, there is no immediate visual connection to Merian’s work other than the exhibition’s broad theme of female interaction with nature. However, Tschäpe cites Merian as a major artistic and feminist influence. For example, both artists focus on death and decay—Tschäpe depicts her own demise in many natural environments and Merian shows the constant and natural cycle of life and death.

Super Natural visitors explore works from Janaina Tschäpe’s "100 Little Deaths" series

Super Natural visitors explore works from Janaina Tschäpe’s “100 Little Deaths” series; Photograph: Laura Hoffman

Notably, the artistic visions of both Merian and Tschäpe required travel. Tschäpe has stated that her “100 Little Deaths” series visually explains how every person leaves a small piece of him- or herself in each new place they visit. From the intense detail and minute observation that Merian uses in her scientific prints, it is clear to any Super Natural visitor that Merian left parts of herself with the natural world in Suriname as well. Pioneering women like Merian opened the gates for future generations of women, such as Tschäpe, to use travel to follow their passions—artistic or otherwise.

Throughout history, men have been considered the more adventurous sex. Roving artists such as Maria Sibylla Merian and Janaina Tschäpe show that the realm of discovery and exploration does not solely belong to men. They, too, got their hands dirty, showed bravery in the face of treacherous or difficult circumstances, and eschewed their comfort zones in favor of travel and new experiences. These two women—working nearly 300 years apart—followed their artistic inspirations to explore their deep personal connections to nature.

—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.

Frightful & Delightful: Summer Exhibitions

We are excited to announce that NMWA’s summer exhibitions, Super Natural and Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015, open tomorrow! Museum staff have been busy transforming the 2nd-floor galleries to display these flora-and-fauna-filled artworks by women.

NMWA exhibition team hang works while Patricia Piccinini’s Stags look on.

NMWA’s exhibition team hangs works while Patricia Piccinini’s Stags look on, Photograph: Laura Hoffman

Super Natural explores the works of both historical painters and naturalists alongside contemporary artists.

Historical works like Rachel Ruysch’s 17th-century still life are juxtaposed with contemporary works such as Sam Taylor-Johnson’s video of decaying fruit.

Upon walking into the galleries, the spotlit Stags, by Patricia Piccinini, compels viewers into the room to take a closer look at these sparring hybrid creatures.

One Super Natural gallery displays a variety of ingenious artists’ books together with Maria Sybilla Merian’s lavish illustrations of plants and insects. Not merely beautiful depictions of flowers, Merian’s prints portray insects’ life cycles, including a graphic depiction of a spider feasting on an ill-fated hummingbird. Super Natural subverts traditional notions of women as observers, showing them as inventive and risk-taking artists.

Gallery spaces are transformed for Super Natural

Gallery spaces are transformed for Super Natural, Photograph: Laura Hoffman

A plethora of photographs from Janaina Tschäpe’s “Little Deaths” series appears alongside Ana Mendieta’s “Volcano” series. Both artists’ work reflects their interest in manipulating scenes of nature with the human body.

NMWA’s committee-driven exhibition Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015 features living artists working with the subject of nature. 

Organic Matters presents 13 emerging or underrepresented artists from the states and countries in which the museum has outreach committees. These artists redefine the relationship between women, art, and nature.

A recurring theme in Organic Matters is the emphasis on humankind’s effect on the environment. Goldschmied and Chiari’s photograph harkens back to Monet’s waterlillies, but presents garbage-made-pretty lilies floating in a stream. Drawings by Jennifer Celio portray an unsettling view of nature in the not-too-distant future. Mimi Kato’s digital landscape explores the presence of mankind within urban green spaces.

Organic Matters artist Dawn Holder lays out individual squares of porcelain grass in Monoculture; Right, Organic Matters artist Rebecca Hutchinson assembles her multimedia installation Patterns of Nature, Photographs: Laura Hoffman

Large floor-based sculptures by contemporary artists Dawn Holder and Rebecca Hutchinson command visitors’ attention in the center of each Organic Matters gallery. Both artists came to the museum for the installation process.

Super Natural and Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015 are on view through September 13, 2015. Stop in for Free Community Day this Sunday and enjoy noon gallery talks every Wednesday!

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