‘Awake in the Dream World: The Art of Audrey Niffenegger’ at the National Museum of Women in the Arts

September 12, 2013

Audrey Niffenegger is, first and foremost, a storyteller. But the author of the 2003 best-selling novel “The Time Traveler’s Wife” also is a visual artist, and her first museum exhibition, “Awake in the Dream World,” is on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Threads of wild yarns are woven throughout the show, even when the work is not overtly narrative, as in the section titled “States of Mind.”

That one gallery is devoted entirely to the artist’s self-portraits, made between 1985 and 2010. Although Niffenegger has clearly regarded herself closely, and with an eye that does not flatter or feint, the 22 portraits in this gallery also tell a kind of tale. It’s one about aging, to be sure, told over 25 years. But the individual pictures themselves often are a mix of well-grounded verisimilitude and flights of fancy. Two of the portraits feature monkeys, posing on or near the artist’s head, though Niffenegger does not have one as a pet. Two others feature bird nests in her hair. In one trippy image, moth wings are sprouting from where her ears should be.

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.

The Story Behind the Work

Love and longing is a recurring theme in “Awake in the Dream World.” But it’s the human head, not the heart, that is the locus of those emotions.

Although the collage “Heartstrings” features an anatomically correct heart being manipulated like a marionette, that organ also has a pair of wide-open eyes. Many other images in this show focus on the head as a metaphor for fear, anxiety and other emotions: a head exploding, a head floating away from the body, a hat piled high with skulls. In several cases, it’s hair that expresses personality. The very different characters of the protagonists in “The Three Incestuous Sisters,” for instance, are each represented by long tresses of blond, blue and red.

For Niffenegger, the unconscious mind is a fertile incubator. It’s no wonder that in two works called “Nest,” a baby bird and an unhatched egg sit atop her overheated cranium.

— Michael O’Sullivan

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.
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