Worth Watching


NMWA Profiles 11 Emerging, Eclectic Women Artists

With its imposing Renaissance Revival architecture, sweeping marble staircases, and generally masculine feel, it comes as a bit of a surprise that the decidedly female-oriented National Museum of Women in the Arts used to be a Masonic Temple. But this museum is known for surprises — especially among the diverse and often unusual artwork it presents. Hence its latest offering, “Women to Watch 2008,” a surprisingly contemporary and intense photography exhibit that feels right at home in the corner of one of the museum’s hierophantic halls.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) boasts “the single most important collection of art by women in the world,” with more than 900 artists represented, and “Women to Watch” seeks to expand that illustrious roster.

“Women to Watch” is a new program at the museum to showcase emerging and underrepresented artists. In 2006, 50 women applied to be a part of this year’s show and 11 were selected. The resulting small exhibition occupies only one room on the museum’s third floor and has a distinctly separate feel from the rest of the museum, which tends to force the viewer to scrutinize each artist’s work more closely. And although the exhibit is made up entirely of photographs — with one slide installation and one video installation — each artist has such a markedly different style from her sister exhibitors that it hardly feels like you’re looking at a series of photos. This nontraditional curatorial approach makes for an innovative, risky and even humorous show that has a much larger impact than its size would denote.

The exhibition includes artists from six states: Marita Gootee (Mississippi), Joan Myers (New Mexico), Lissa Rivera (Massachusetts), Zoe Strauss (Pennsylvania), Tricia Moreau Sweeney (Illinois), as well as Peruvian-born Tarrah Krajnak and Puerto Rican Wilka Roig (Vermont). Four countries are also represented: Valérie Belin (France), South Korean-born Jin-me Yoon (Canada), Elisa Sighicelli (Great Britain), and Venezuelan-born Paulina Parra (Spain).

Upon entering the exhibition, viewers will find a curtained-off slideshow displaying the work of Strauss, who takes us on a journey to her South Philadelphia neighborhood to witness its desolation. There’s a woman displaying a C-section scar on her stomach, a clown drinking from a can of Budweiser beer, and other strangely sad shots of locals in this down-and-out section of town. One of the most poignant images though is of a nondescript, low-rent, high-rise apartment building where a big cardboard sign in one window reads “Mom, We Are OK.”

A video installation by Yoon of Vancouver, Canada, takes audiences on a very different ride — from the perspective of a person strapped to a skateboard apparatus as it glides through city streets. The somewhat odd video does offer a mesmerizing vantage point of the horizontal plane at ground level, mixed with a certain element of humor as the strapped-in, lying-down human rolls by the surprised people standing above.

Britain’s Sighicelli, meanwhile, paints an eerie, Gotham-like city through photos of large billboards in Shanghai that have been digitally stripped of product logos and promotional information, leaving behind an abstract pattern of glowing lights. The works are exhibited in partially backlit light boxes to reinforce the creepy sensation of ghost billboards floating in a city without message or meaning.

Continuing with the surreal theme but from a distinctly different approach, France’s Belin creates two oversize portraits of a picture-perfect male and female. Both are simply called “Untitled.” The face and shoulders of Belin’s subjects are bare and there are no other clues as to their origin or back story. So are they really humans or have they been computer-generated? Belin’s work encourages contemplation on identity, image and sexuality.

There are, however, more traditional photographic works in “Women to Watch.” Panoramic images of generators and power sources by New Mexico’s Myers address the role of industry in altering the environment. Gootee of Mississippi, one of the state’s most important midcareer photographers, has created beautiful impressionistic images of nature in her “Shifting Landscapes” series by using a pinhole camera and then hand-tinting her prints with colored pencils and linseed oil. And over in Massachusetts, Rivera turns a deadpan photographic eye on college fraternity and sorority houses in her native Boston. There are no rowdy college kids in these photos though; rather the scene is created using only the symbols of a privileged collegiate lifestyle — trophies, paddles, alumni photos and scattered litter from partying.

And, of course, there’s more — yet it’s all contained in a small space. Although there may be less to view here than a typical exhibit, there’s more to consider as 11 women give us 11 eclectic and vastly different perspectives on art and life in a world-class museum. Now that’s worth watching.

Women to Watch 2008 through June 15 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.

About the Author

Rachel Ray is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.