“The Best Art is hovering between two poles…”
– Chief Curator Kathryn Wat
Longing and revulsion. Empathy and scorn. Humor and tragic loss. These are just some of the conflicting emotions that wash over the psyche in the midst of Revival, now on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. While disparate in medium, scale and visual tone, the 16 artists represented in the exhibition share one goal: to take you beyond your emotional comfort zone, pushing you into uncharted territory where your synapses fire on overload to process new, visual information. Like a bellowing preacher raising tented rafters, the assembled works goad us to transcend the mundane, considering our relationships to self and others within new, and often provocative, contexts.
From Beverly Semmes’ room-sized Blue Gowns to Polly Morgan’s diminutive Receiver, the works on display often harness unusual scale to visually disorient the visitor. When depictions of the human body occur, the form is often truncated, disembodied or presented in otherworldly contexts. Painting is notably absent from the exhibition and while photographic images are prevalent, some of the most visceral reactions occur from works heavily reliant on non-traditional materials, including fabric, rope, silicone, taxidermy and wax. It is in these works, capturing visions of the human form outside the historical canon of the painterly male gaze, where revelatory reconsiderations of the human condition occur.
The exhibition is arranged across three broad themes which capture the child, the (female) body and the shamanistic creature. Stepping off the elevator, a taste of the latter greets the viewer before entering the exhibition proper. Baby quail chick heads burst from the speaker end of old-fashioned telephone handset in Polly Morgan’s Receiver (2009). Situating a nest within a man-made construction is jarring visually, suggesting that our rush to modernity is reshaping the natural world around us in unintended ways. The intimated cacophony of sound also portends of what’s to come.
From one disorientating visual to the next, we enter the section of the exhibition dedicated to depictions of the child. Maria Marshall’s When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Cooker (1998) dominates one side of the gallery, its video taking up an entire wall. Marshall depicts her young son as a somewhat “sophisticated” smoker, able to blow smoke rings off a single puff of a cigarette. The (simulated) image may provoke anger at the parents, but also evokes feelings of helplessness, underscoring the anxiety every parent experiences to some degree knowing that, despite their best intentions, children’s lives are also conditioned by the media they consume. Her nearby image I Will Be 5 in 200 Days (1999), featuring another son wearing a luxurious fur that cocoons his small body, underscores this notion that the cultural transition from childhood to adulthood is happening at an increasingly alarming speed.
This transition to adulthood takes more sensual tones in the photographic works of Deborah Paauwe. Pieces such as Lime Dream (2002) and Tangled Whisper (2004), depict the fragmented forms of two teenagers in close—seemingly intimate—physical contact with one another. While subtle lighting focuses the attention on their pale skin and hand positioning, the deliberate lack of facial expressions obscures the relationship between the two young women. A similar dynamic appears in Bettina von Zwehl’s The Sessions (2016), except here the profile is presented in a variety of fragmented forms, suggesting the emotional landscape of the child is too broad to be fully understood. Rather, our experience of these children is filtered through our own preconceptions and misconceptions on what it means to be a child; rather than allowing the children to exist on their own terms, we view their lives through our very adult prisms. Understand that and your experience of these “young adults” starts to shift.
That shift is quickened as you encounter themes of the female body and other metaphorical creatures that inhabit the remaining gallery space. While gender is not specified in the wall text, it is often alluded to in both the curvaceous forms of sculpture and the delicate fluidity of materials even as those materials are sometimes used in indelicate ways. Untitled #781 (1994) by Petah Coyne embodies this notion, serving as a transitional point to depictions of the body. Curiously, the flamboyant work delineates the body without literally depicting one at all. Rather the sculpted dress, dripping with cream and pink-colored wax, inverts and suspends a body in suggestion only, encouraging the viewer to throw their physical desires into the crinoline void. Beverly Semmes’ room-sized Blue Gowns (1993) taps a similar train of thought with her trains of azure blue that literally push the viewer to the very edges of the space. Here too literal bodies are missing, but the power of they embody rushes towards the viewer like raging waterfall.
Alison Saar dominates one room of the exhibition with six sculptures, several of which depict a female form in states of seeming metaphoric bondage. Look closely though, and the situation is much less cut and dry. Tippy Toes (2007) shows a floating woman encased from the waist down in a form that is equal parts petticoat and tepee. While there is constraint, she also floats high, as if lighter than air. What if the form is embracing her spiritual nature rather than constraining her? Likewise En Pointe (2010) features an unnerving metaphorical form suspended up-side-down by a rope. While the composition suggests violence in several forms (racial, gender), the mythology of the body with its combined masculinity and femininity suggests something deeper is at play. The serene countenance and gently folded hands across the chest depict a figure in transcendence rather than agony.
Lalla Essaydi, Cathy de Monchaux and Sonya Clark perform similar sleights of hand but with an opposite effect, layering their seemingly-straightforward works with socially-critical commentary. Essaydi’s Bullets Revisited #20 (2014) presents an image that when viewed from afar cleaves to (the wall text notes) historic Orientalist art in its portrayal of the female form. Step closer and you see the woman’s cloak is covered in bullet casings, making more visceral the violence subtly alluded to by Saar. Likewise Monchaux’s Clearing the Tracks Before They Appear (1994) and Clark’s Cotton to Hair both imbue their humble materials with historically-laden references to control of the woman’s body.
The exhibition takes on an additional layer of meaning with its inclusion of other (worldly) creatures, using our emotional connections to those animals as a basis for digging deeper into our own psyche. Joana Vasconcelos’ Tsarina (2015) and Senator (2017) depict larger than life garden creatures most of us wish to avoid. Swath them in crocheted lace and they take on more humorous guise, until we realize the lace also functions to constrict their movement and burden their fragile bodies. Likewise Louise Bourgeois’ Spider III (1995), a new acquisition for the museum, attempts to capture the tenacity and grace of the arachnid—characteristics that for the late artist invoked notions of motherhood.
The emotional impact of these “others” becomes more taut as the works take on further, humanistic connotations. Sonia Gomes’ Untitled (2015) hangs from the ceiling in similar fashion to En Pointe and, while certainly not as literal as Saar’s work, presents a series of undulating, organic forms that easily reads as the core of the human figure. Gomes uses fabric given to her by people she knows, believing that the spirits of those donors lives on with her work. Patricia Piccinini takes this idea to a shocking conclusion in the transgenic species depicted by The Young Family (2002). Startlingly lifelike, the disturbing depiction of a human-animal hybrid foresees a day when human organs might be genetically grown and harvested from other sentient beings. Casting the animal in a fundamental act of motherhood—the suckling of her brood—displays an eerie humanity and begs the question: are our emotional lives able to keep up with our scientific minds?
Revival is more snapshot than encyclopedia; each one of these themes could form the basis for an in-depth exhibition. Yet while this show presents more overview than deep consideration, it still packs an emotionally-charged punch. This ability to get under our skin and shake up our preconceived notions of how the world behaves demonstrates just how fragile those notions are. Embrace that emotional quicksand, these artists seem to say, and jump deeply into the world that surrounds you with your third eye fully engaged.
Revival is on view through September 10, 2017 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. For more information, visit their website here
Banner image: works by Alison Saar: En Pointe, En Point Study, Pressed and Barreness.