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One of the redeeming virtues of the National Museum of Women in the Arts is its book-arts collection. As the world’s primary museum of art by women—and one located in the nation’s capital, on the border between the bustle of downtown and the trendiness of Logan Circle—it could be the greatest contemporary art museum in the city, and a serious advocacy organization to boot. Though the museum steadfastly refuses to take advantage of its mission and location, it has always excelled in the modest aim of displaying and promoting the book arts. So it’s a shame that viewers aren’t queuing up to see “Awake in the Dream World,” a survey of works by Audrey Niffenegger, the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, as the show is as good an exhibit of book arts as anyone could possibly hope for.
Fans of Edward Gorey will find a lot to love about Niffenegger’s artworks, which tap the dark potential of childhood fantasies and fairy tales as well as the all-too-real horrors of sex, childbirth, and death. Throughout her paintings and prints, skeletons court damsels in a sort of waking nightmare. Lurking in the real world are still greater dangers: men and monsters who dream of seducing, kidnapping, or despoiling youthful girls.
Niffenegger is a capable painter but not a distinctive one, and though her strength is in storytelling, her paintings—her marks, brushstrokes, and colors—don’t tell any story in and of themselves. None of the self-portraits stand up as a result. Niffenegger is at her best when she is illustrating other works, and part of the success of “Awake in the Dream World” is the artist’s curatorial purview. It is not just her insightful illustration of a poem by John Donne, for example, but her clever sampling of sources throughout that demonstrates her perspective. An excelsior example is Niffenegger’s “Poisonous Plants at Table and Prudence: The Cautionary Tale of a Picky Eater” (2006), a series of prints from a book based on a 1901 manual, Poisonous Plants in Field and Garden. With a collaborator, Niffenegger crafts a fairy tale that includes seasonal menus of deadly plants and vegetables.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts Curator of Book Arts Krystyna Wasserman deserves great credit for highlighting the alternatives to traditional publishing, and “Awake in the Dream World” is a show that will appeal as much if not more to book lovers as art fans. Seeing several short books by Niffenegger unfold over the course of an exhibition is as mesmerizing as the work is goosebump-raising—a curatorial feat to balance an artistic vision.