From a distance, Arkansas artist Dawn Holder’s installation “Monoculture” (2013), which the artist installs on gallery floors, resembles a rectangular patch of grass. Closer inspection reveals that each handmade blade of “grass” is actually porcelain.
When curators at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) selected the piece for the exhibition “Organic Matters — Women to Watch 2015,” they couldn’t have anticipated how relevant it would be.
“It’s a commentary on America’s obsession with perfectly manicured lawns,” says Virginia Treanor, an associate NMWA curator and exhibition curator. “The delicacy of the material references the fragileness of the resource, which is water, that is pumped and pumped into the lawns.”
With California plagued by drought and some homeowners in that state reportedly painting fading lawns green, the work is “so timely,” says Amy Mannarino, a museum spokeswoman.
“Organic Matters,” the fourth iteration of the museum’s “Women to Watch” series, is culled from nominations from 13 of the museum’s 18 national and international outreach committees, which advise the museum. Each committee may nominate up to five artists from its region, and curators at the downtown Washington museum select one artist per committee to show. The committees were asked to select artists whose works focus on nature, which also is the subject of what Treanor calls a “sister exhibit,” also running at the museum, titled “Super Natural.”
It’s easy to wander between “Super Natural” and “Organic Matters” without realizing it. The former provides historical context dating to the 17th century, while the latter presents works only by living artists.
Both shows explore centuries-old gender stereotypes that barred female artists from the important genres of history and religious painting. Instead, they were expected to copy landscapes and fruit arrangements, perceived as lowlier subjects.
“Throughout Western history at least, and maybe even more broadly, there’s always been this association of culture with what men are empowered to produce,” says Helen Langa, an associate art history professor at American University whose research and teaching address gender. “Women have always been seen as closer to nature, partly because they menstruate, they have children and they cook.”
More recently, many female artists in the late-20th and early- 21st centuries have been fascinated by the “magic of nature” and its “non-human qualities” but, unlike some of their male counterparts, explore it without seeking to overpower nature, Langa says. Still, some stereotypes have endured.
“When people say ‘Mother Nature,’ there’s still this sense of nature as other to civilization. In that cultural projection, civilization is usually seen as masculine and nature is seen as somehow feminized,” she says.
The NMWA exhibition seeks to dispel the notion that women are closer to nature than men. When female artists mine nature as subject matter, they often address the gruesome rather than the pretty and the dainty. “They don’t shy away,” Treanor says.
One such work in the exhibit is “Nympheas #12” (2007), a photograph of an arrangement the Italy-based duo Sara Goldschmied and Eleonora Chiari made by fishing plastic bags out of the Tiber River and rearranging the litter to evoke Monet’s water lilies. The bags look more like flowers than garbage.
“Are we so used to seeing trash in rivers that it looks natural?” Treanor asks.
Polly Morgan’s “Systemic Inflammation” (2010) comes from an artist whose work has been confused with trash. In April 2009, movers mistook a piece of Morgan’s — a taxidermied bird in a matchbox — in Courtney Love’s collection for garbage and tossed it. At the NMWA, Morgan’s installation contains about 20 taxidermied finches — the second recent appearance of that species at the museum — tied by steel cords to a cage.
Although Morgan uses animals that have died naturally (“Now that she’s known for doing this, people send her things,” Treanor says), the yellow-orange painted finches are ominously secured. And the cage, modeled on a 19th-century drawing of a flying machine, is charred. The flame-colored birds also evoke the phoenix, the artist has said.
In the adjacent galleries, the 23 artists included in “Super Natural” address broader aspects of nature. “They’ve been concerned with science and the forces of nature, including decay and, frankly, the strangeness of nature,” says NMWA’s chief curator, Kathryn Wat.
In her video “Still Life” (2001), Sam Taylor-Johnson, known for directing “Fifty Shades of Grey,” accelerates the camera’s capture of a bowl of fruit decaying and growing moldy over time.
Elsewhere in the show, Patricia Piccinini’s “The Stags” (2008) resemble a cross between deer and motorcycles. The “stags,” painted with automotive paint and displaying wheels, have “antlers” made of motorcycle side mirrors. The work, in which the two bodies appear to clash, explores troubling machine-living hybrids.
“Her question isn’t whether this is good or bad,” Wat says, “but are we ready for it?”
In “Organic Matters,” another artist addresses dystopian futures. Jennifer Celio’s pencil drawing “NIMBY (national park)” (2012), which references the phrase “not in my back yard,” depicts a troubling imaginary park where an oil rig, a food truck selling Korean barbecue tacos and an abundance of surveillance equipment blend poorly with nature.
To make the point more blatant, some tourists in the work ignore a real bear climbing a tree to instead photograph a person in a bear costume. And scrawled in enormous letters on a mountain is the phrase “We are the 99%.”
In Celio’s work, and in many other pieces in the two NMWA exhibitions, there is a tension between beautiful and troubling depictions of nature. That reflects what Langa, the AU professor, says is a view in the art world today that important artists make complicated, abstract works, while those who paint beautiful landscapes are valued less. “We don’t see it in Artforum or ARTnews, particularly,” she says.
“You really have a complexly tiered art system now in the United States.”
Wecker is a freelance writer.
Organic Matters — Women to Watch 2015 and Super Natural. Through Sept. 13 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW. 202-783-5000. www.nmwa.org.