At the National Museum of Women in the Arts, a revival is being staged, but it isn’t clear what exactly is being revived.
A group exhibition titled “REVIVAL” features compelling work by 16 female contemporary artists, including sculpture, photography and video. The collected artwork veers from the beautiful to the grotesque, from biting commentary to sweet nuance, stirring emotions in viewers that ultimately are of their own making. As a whole, the work poses more questions than answers, which is what art is all about.
The exhibition is meant to conjure an old-fashioned tent revival, said Kathryn Wat, the museum’s chief curator. “Similar to a preacher, we use intensity to get us to a level of understanding about love and power and anxiety,” she said at a press preview. But in those religious rituals of bygone days, tent revivals reveled in undying faith and fiery fervor. A sweating crowd of true believers would be swept up in the ecstasy of the religious spectacle, experiencing true joy tinged with real fear of the eternal hellfire awaiting the wicked.
This exhibition has only a tenuous connection to those concepts. While some work explores wider themes of life and death, only a few pieces could be considered spectacles. A more apt categorization might be the revival of interest in female contemporary artists who have largely been ignored for decades, as the Guerrilla Girls have illustrated through their ongoing critique of the male-dominated domain of most museum exhibitions. The National Museum of Women in the Arts, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a greater focus on contemporary female artists, obviously doesn’t suffer from that sexist problem, but it can still be difficult to unite the diverse work of many female artists under one overarching theme.
The exhibition is definitely worth seeing regardless of the theme, with the work loosely divided into depictions of women, children or animals. Most of the artists have several works on display in separate areas, providing much-needed space for contemplation rather than competition.
At two entrances, visitors immediately see an unnerving sculpture or a controversial video projection that trigger the most shock value, most likely not by coincidence. In the video titled “When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Cooker,” London-based artist Maria Marshall’s 2-year-old son stares nonchalantly ahead while blowing smoke rings from a lit cigarette. The video, whose title comes from a quote by her son, immediately triggers a visceral outrage, especially if you’re a parent of young kids like myself, about how this irresponsible artist could endanger her own child in the name of art. But the video is smoke and mirrors with digital trickery used to create the smoke. In the wall text, Marshall said she was “projecting on him a future as an addict” and asking, “How does a mother calm herself and learn to let her children just be?”
For convoluted reasons that aren’t worth explaining, Marshall was swept up in the insane Pizzagate conspiracy that claimed the popular Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in D.C. was also the base for a child sex ring, leading to an unhinged gunman storming the restaurant, although thankfully no one was injured. Marshall has said her work is about “fantasy and fabrication” and “not about being sensational,” which is disingenuous on some levels. On her website, she doesn’t reveal the boy in the video is her son, and she falsely claims that he “parts his lips inhaling the smoke deeply into his lungs.”
Deborah Paauwe offers a subtler examination of adolescence in sensual chromogenic prints of young women whose faces are hidden or seen only in profile, creating uncertain story lines. In “Tangled Whisper,” the torso of a nude woman with auburn hair appears locked in a dance or tender embrace with another young woman wearing a white brocaded dress. In “Tender Locks,” their backs are shown while they tug gently on each other’s hair. It’s difficult to gauge their age, and their images seem both innocent and titillating at the same time. Are they childhood friends or budding lovers? What does it say about the viewer if you pick one over the other?
Alison Saar’s sculptures fill an entire gallery and offer the most pointed commentary on race and gender in the exhibition. “En Pointe” is an imposing bronze sculpture of a nude woman suspended upside down by a rope wrapped around her ankles that is attached to the ceiling with a pulley. The immediate electric impulse it triggers is the bloody history of lynchings of innocent African Americans in the South in yet another sordid chapter of America’s long, tragic history of racism, rage and dehumanization. Saar, who calls these sculptures “inverted lynchings,” has said that being raised by a black mother (famed artist Betye Saar) and white father played into her feelings of “never belonging in either world, always being considered some sort of other.” But she said that uneasy duality also extends to “seeing myself as the civilized self and the uncivilized self, the wild self and the controlled, contained, well-behaved self.”
“En Pointe,” a ballet term for on the tips of the toes, is more difficult to read on closer inspection. The woman’s serene expression and folded arms belie her brutal treatment, and large antlers protruding from her head evoke a mythical beast or a merging of the masculine and feminine.
In Saar’s recently created sculpture called “Barreness,” a bronze nude woman sits on two battered trunks while a thicket of thorny branches tangles upward from her belly button. For centuries, a woman’s only function was as wife and mother. Despite their lofty station, even queens could be discarded or executed if they couldn’t bear sons to carry on the royal line. The title of the sculpture, which sits upon her own baggage, plays on the noble title of baroness as well as the inability to bear children in that enduring history of body politics.
At the other entrance to the exhibition, Patricia Piccinini’s eminently creepy silicone and fiberglass sculpture titled “The Young Family” stirs an intense dread that flirts with outright horror. A mother pig has been transmogrified with human-like hands and legs and is covered with real tufts of human hair. Three piglets nurse from her teats while a fourth has been abandoned, cast aside struggling on its back alone. The mother creature’s eerie expression conveys both a sadness and fragility about an uncertain future both for herself and her offspring. Piccinini has said the work was inspired by our futuristic and ethically problematic attempts to genetically engineer human organs in pigs to be harvested and transplanted, turning animals into genetic freaks that exist only to provide replacement parts for humans. The sculpture, which was shown in 2003 at the Venice Biennale when Piccinini represented Australia, is so unnerving and lifelike that internet rumors claimed it was some new mutant species. The conspiracy-busting website Snopes even investigated the rumor to debunk it.
In the largest installation in the exhibition, Beverly Semmes’s “Blue Gowns” fills an entire gallery, with flowing sections of baby-blue chiffon lined with black crushed velvet descending from the wall and cascading across the floor like three separate waterfalls. While the materials and title obviously reference wedding or ball gowns, Semmes, a D.C. native now living in New York, has said the work isn’t primarily a feminist critique of the constricting layers that women adorn to please men, other women or themselves, but is instead an examination of the interplay between the female body and the earth’s undulating landscape that grounds all of us.
While female artists continue to be under-recognized in a male-centric field, the National Museum of Women in the Arts — itself an institution that over the years has struggled for recognition — shows that these artists and their work are very much alive and thriving. In fact, on the eve of its 30th anniversary, the museum announced that it received a $9 million gift from the estate of Madeleine Rast, a longtime benefactor who herself exceeded in a male-dominated field — in her case, business. Born in Zurich, Rast moved to California as a young woman and became a successful management auditor and savvy investor.
“The achievements of women artists of the past have generally been overlooked and ignored, yet many women persisted, developing their talents and producing magnificent works of art,” said Rast, who died earlier this year at the age of 92. “Today’s artist still faces the same set of problems. She needs the time and place to develop her art. She needs a responsive audience also capable of constructive criticism. She needs a peer group for support and collaboration. And, yes, she needs recognition for her work.”
through Sept. 10
National Museum of Women in the Arts
1250 New York Ave., NW
For more information, please call (202) 783-5000 or visit www.nmwa.org.