Four exhibitions at the National Museum of Women in the Arts

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 2010

There's something for nearly every taste at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, where a quartet of shows includes an installation touching on themes of death, reincarnation and the human condition as well as a pretty but mentally untaxing exhibition on collaborative printmaking.

At the serious end of the spectrum: two walk-in-closet-size installations inspired by "The Tibetan Book of the Dead," an eighth-century Buddhist text that serves as a kind of guidebook to the afterlife. In it, you'll find images of suicide; sex and other bodily functions; gruesome injury; and at least one obscene gesture. It should come with a parental advisory.

The show, created by Korean-born American artist JuYeon Kim in collaboration with students, faculty and staff at the Savannah College of Art and Design and the Fiber Guild of the Savannahs, consists of two rooms: "Untitled_mi10" and "Untitled_ci10." The first room is defined by more than 100 long strips of fabric hung in a circle and embroidered with the aforementioned scenes. Each picture is about the size of a handkerchief. The second room is actually a large wooden box that you walk inside. Its cell-like walls are lined with dark bas-relief sculptures of human figures that seem to be wrestling in mud.

Collectively known as "The In-Between" -- a title that refers to the transition between this life and the next -- the two installations are only a mixed success. "Untitled_mi10" (the fabric room) works better, as its scenes of earthly existence are pretty relatable to everyone. In addition to the R-rated stuff, it includes images of sports, religion, technology and the ordinary -- i.e., boring -- domestic life. "Untitled_ci10" (the wood box) is harder to get. Each of the chamber's wall panels represents one of six realms, or worlds, through which souls pass on their way to enlightenment. But there's no key to help viewers decipher which is which.

On the lighter side, "The Collaborative Print: Works From Solo Impression" features works by Maya Lin, Louise Bourgeois, Ida Applebroog and 19 other well-known female artists. Like the Corcoran Gallery of Art's "Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration," this eye-pleasing show also deals with the team effort often required by contemporary printmaking.

A second print show, "June Wayne's 'Dorothy Series,' " tells a more coherent -- and powerful -- tale. Described by the 92-year-old artist, a pioneering figure in printmaking, as a kind of "film in 20 freeze frames," the series of 20 lithographs tells the life story of Wayne's mother, Dorothy, a twice-divorced Russian immigrant who supported her family by selling corsets. It works on several levels: as maternal homage, as autobiography and as a highly personal narrative of 20th-century America.

The last of the four shows -- which take up the museum's second floor -- focuses on eight emerging artists. Part of the museum's biennial "Women to Watch" series, "Body of Work: New Perspectives on Figure Painting" features a mere 17 works (including one short animated film made from Jennifer Levonian's poetic watercolors). The theme may be the body, but you'd be hard-pressed to draw conclusions about the state of figure painting today.

It isn't that kind of show anyway. "Body of Work" is like a flight of new wines, perfect for sampling on a summer's afternoon. You may not have heard of any of the eight artists before, but chances are you'll hear from them again.

The Collaborative Print: Works From Solo Impression JuYeon Kim: The In-Between June Wayne's "Dorothy Series" Body of Work: New Perspectives on Figure Painting "Body of Work" is on view through Sept. 12, and the other three run through Sept. 13 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW (Metro: Metro Center). 202-783-5000. Hours: Open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays noon to 5 p.m. Admission: $10; students and seniors $8; members and visitors 18 and younger free. Admission is free for all on the first Sunday of the month.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company