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The best debate in sex today is about what it means to be a woman. When Caitlyn Jenner (née Bruce) announced her identity on the cover of Vanity Fair, she summoned a storm that touched down everywhere at once: inside the college of cardinals at ESPN, among the cluck of Republican candidates running for president, and across the starry sky of glossy gossip tabloids.
Maybe the richest responses came from the pocket of the feminist left that holds transgender women at arm’s length (trans-exclusionary radical feminism, some call it). From this dim galaxy, pundits dusted off terms like “neurosexism” to condemn the idea that someone born a man could somehow divine that he is, in essence, a woman. Some critics picked at the role of celeb portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz in casting this newly identified woman in the retrograde light of beauty. (The cosmetic-industrial complex will probably survive.)
It is against this urgent and thrilling backdrop that the National Museum of Women in the Arts arrives with an argument that couldn’t feel further from the present. Two new exhibitions, “Super Natural” and “Organic Matters,” propose to explore the intimate relationship between women and nature. That connection is presented as so one-dimensional, however, that the statement shows wind up making an unflattering case about the nature of women.
In a word, the works at the National Museum of Women in the Arts are gorgeous. The paintings, photography, sculptures, and installations on view are overwhelmingly palatable and appealing. There are strong highlights in “Organic Matters” and heavy hitters in “Super Natural,” but what both shows lack is an approach to nature that includes brutality and corporeality, blood and guts—and a conception of women as able to respond to the whole sum of nature through art.
“Super Natural” is the worse offender on this point. Amy Lamb’s photographs, “Vase of Flowers I” and “Purple Datura,” are workmanlike still-life prints that don’t make much of any argument. Sharon Core’s photos are a little better on this score: “Single Rose” is tricky, for example, in that it’s a still life made up of pig ears arranged in an exact replica of a flower in bloom. Worth a chuckle, but it still confirms an expectation—that artists remake what nature creates—supported by other works on view, like Rachel Ruysch’s 1680s oil painting “Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies, and Other Flowers on a Stone Ledge.”
As much as I love Ana Mendieta and Louise Bourgeois, there must be a way to do a survey of women in 2015 that doesn’t rely on them—sorry not sorry—especially on a theme that is supposed to be narrow and pointed. It’s a thrill to see engravings from 1719 by Maria Sibylla Merian; less so the 2012 response in etching by Monika E. de Vries Gohlke, which, taken in the context of the entire show, seems to suggest that in 300 years, women haven’t shaken the idea that art is a mirror for the natural world.
The subdivision between “Super Natural” and “Organic Matters” is tough to suss out at first glance. The former is an exhibition of some 50 artworks by half as many women, spanning pieces drawn from both the collection and loans, all of which have to do with nature. “Organic Matters,” on the other hand, is the museum’s latest biennial, which assembles works by 13 emerging artists from around the world—all of which have to do with nature. A biennial might be the more electric presentation, at least on paper, but here it’s positioned as a coda to “Super Natural.”
Lara Shipley’s “In the Ozarks There are Lights (Devil’s Promenade)” (2013) and “False Lights (Devil’s Promenade)” (2013) find some mystery in nature, at least; her photographs of lonely Midwestern paths, captured in the gloaming, express caution and uncertainty. Apprehension is a quality that’s hard to come by in “Organic Matters” (or for that matter, “Super Natural”). The pitch of the show is mildly celebratory. Ysabel LeMay’s “Reflection” (2014), a digitally composed diptych of various flora and fauna, might be a composition from 1914 or 1814 or even 1714. Good works by Jiha Moon and Jennifer Celio suffer from the inconsistency with which the various worldwide “Women to Watch” committees selected pieces for “Organic Matters.” A single curator would not have signed her name to it.
For the rest of the summer, the second floor of the museum will offer a calm stroll through a variety of depictions of nature with almost no risks or missteps. The missed opportunity is more regrettable than anything in either “Super Natural” or “Organic Matters.” The exhibitions are pleasant and inoffensive—unlike nature, in my experience—but the wrong way to frame work by women in 2015. Out in the world, women face a storm in the world that’s both terrible and terribly fascinating. The National Museum of Women in the Arts, meanwhile, is stuck in the doldrums.
1250 New York Ave. NW. $8-$10. (202) 783-5000. nmwa.org