Although frequently surreal, Niffenegger’s self-portraits are the most conventional elements of the three-part show. Because she is a writer and a visual artist — working in the graphic-novel genre as well as with forms that combine text and illustration — much of the rest of the 239-object show is text-heavy. A second section, “Adventures in Bookland,” spotlights such illustrated tales as Niffenegger’s “The Three Incestuous Sisters,” “The Adventuress” and “Raven Girl,” the first two of which are hung, in their entirety, on the walls. This may not be the easiest way to digest a book, even one that is mostly pictures. But viewers — er, readers — also can sit on a bench and peruse a gallery copy of those books.
A third section, “In Dreamland,” features a mix of stand-alone imagery (including more self-portraiture) and illustrated texts. Plan to spend a bit more time here than you might at other art shows.
Five etchings from Niffenegger’s series of “Vanitas” prints are accompanied by poems by Anne Bradstreet, Thomas Campion, Thomas Dekker, John Donne and John Milton. I can imagine that many visitors will not have the patience to read them all, but they really do deepen one’s appreciation of the pictures.
In this section at least, the theme of death — often in the form of a skeleton — comes up again and again.
Now about the art.
One strong influence on Niffenegger is the work of 19th-century British author and illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, whose imprint here is obvious, not just in the elegant attenuation of her figures, but also in her emphasis on macabre and sexual themes. Many of the works in the show are renderings of nightmares and erotic fantasies. The undeniably thrilling (yet surreal) action of “The Three Incestuous Sisters,” for instance, includes suicide, infanticide, intercourse and sexual jealousy.
You wouldn’t know it to look at her art, but Niffenegger also is a big fan of cartoonist Lynda Barry. Barry’s scritchy-scratchy, punk stylings — and elementary-school protagonists — are nowhere in evidence in Niffenegger’s elegant pictorial style and decidedly grown-up goings-on. In a larger sense, however, Barry’s mastery of the union of words and pictures is echoed in Niffenegger’s art, which exerts an unexpected pull.
Though somewhat off-putting at first, Niffenegger’s wordy “Dream World” uses the seductive power of pictures to lure you into a forest of text from which it’s not easy to escape.