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Landscapes of the Night”

At the National Museum of Women in the Arts to Nov. 30

I can pin down the first time I couldn’t sleep. We’d gotten in late to Philly and our early-morning entry tickets for the Cézanne blockbuster meant we had only three hours until we had to get up. I’d been listening to a tape of campy ’60s rock instrumentals to keep me going on the drive up, and now it wouldn’t stop looping through my head. My brain bounced to the beat of Jimmy Nicol’s thundering toms, swerved into the saucy lines of his band’s game-show horns, then jolted to a halt in the tune’s only lyric: “Husky!”

I took it to be an anomaly then, but from time to inopportune time since, my nights have followed a similar script. Sleep won’t come, a silly song pops into my brainpan, and I welcome morning with my head throbbing and acid rising in my throat. A groggy yet nervous day or two later, after chewing through about a dozen Tums, I crash. As health crises go, it’s more a nuisance than a tragedy. And it certainly isn’t the stuff of inspiration.

That’s the first place I part company with Krystyna Wasserman. As director of the Library and Research Center at the National Museum of Women in the Arts until last year, Wasserman was responsible for the exhibitions of book art that appeared regularly in the venue’s main reading room. “Insomnia: Landscapes of the Night,” her first show as the museum’s new curator of book arts, is precious and pretentious, managing, with few exceptions, to be insignificant in all the wrong ways and overwrought where there is no call for drama. It has little to do with my experience of sleeplessness and less to do with my experience of art. But it does illuminate the limitations of book art as a format for public display—and it speaks volumes about the continuing failure of the NMWA to craft a compelling exhibition program.

Proceeding as if sleep-deprived artists grant clear passage to an enchanted netherworld she has only glimpsed, Wasserman takes as the show’s emblem Emprise at 4 a.m. (2001), a starry assemblage of dominoes, piano keys, fishing floats, a bedspring, and some lace by M. Jordan Tierney. Burned into the terraced field of game pieces and wood is a skeletal image of a woman, her head reared back, one hand clutched to her throat, the other outstretched behind her as she charges purposefully stage left. “For me,” Tierney says in the catalog, this ungainly hybrid of nautical figurehead and baldly emotive interpretive dancer “is the symbol of bravery, forging onward alone in odd hours of the night.”

What Tierney herself is emblematic of is a breed of artist, beloved at the NMWA and maligned just about everywhere else, who views her life’s work as both a holy quest undertaken at great psychic risk and a present selflessly proffered to a world starved for its bounty. That the world just ate, thanks, and isn’t really hungry right now is chalked up to ignorance rather than lack of appetite.

Such attitudes aren’t limited to women, of course. But when the self-pitying put-upon-ness of the art-world also-ran compounds with the self-pitying put-upon-ness of someone who thinks she’s being overlooked just because she’s a woman, things get ugly. The rebuffs of an uncaring public eventually turn the artist inward, where she’s most comfortable anyway, being secretly in love with her isolation and suffering. (See how insomnia is a complaint tailor-made for this type?) From there—well, it’s going to be only a short while before the journaling starts. Robyn McClendon-Jones and Julie Wagner are just two of the artists in “Insomnia” who overtly give in to the diaristic impulse, gracing us with collections of private symbols, cursive annotations, and recollections of dreams. Wasserman may refer to the “unconsciously confessional nature of the images” she has selected, but let’s face it: A wee marble book with a skull-shaped brass keyhole set clumsily into the gutter separating the pages à la Mirella Bentivoglio’s Look for the Key in a Dream (1980) is about as unconsciously confessional as a Jackson Browne album.

However intimate such art gets, it always takes care to withhold a few secrets—otherwise where’s the mystery? And “mystery” is as important to this kind of artist as “magic” is to Disney. No art form meets her secrecy requirements like the artist’s book. When encased in a vitrine, it gives up only a fraction of its contents, pre-empting criticism by remaining largely hidden. The unique artist’s book is such a rare and fragile thing that chances are the whole of it will be scrutinized only by the person who liked it enough to pay for it. Or make it: Given that there’s nearly a three-in-four chance that a piece in “Insomnia” is “on loan from the artist,” we can assume that either personal attachment or marketplace indifference has rendered the artist unable to part with it.

Failing to make it into the Art in America annual only makes an artist more attractive to the NMWA, and the air in the contemporary galleries is redolent of compensation. The implication, of course, is that the artists on view have been subject to discrimination. And I believe it—it’s just that, in most cases, the slight seems based less on gender than on sensibility. I’m never long at the NMWA before I can scarcely stand the wispy, gauzy, sainted-Sausalito-gift-shop ache of it all. I get the impression that a disproportionate number of these women’s bedside tables are stacked with well-thumbed anodynes by creative-self-help guru Julia Cameron.

Or Barbara Cartland novels, like those that help make up the pedestal of the nightstand in Bonnie Lee Holland’s Bedroom, Version III (1997-2002). It would be one thing if this installation, which also features a bedspread made partly out of pages of personal ads and personals-section promos, were regarded with light-hearted self-deprecation, but Wasserman takes it to be quite a profound thing, highlighting the “vagaries of unrequited love and desire.” What it really does is link Wasserman’s insomniacs to the lovelorn heroines of the newest wave of chick lit, as victimhood and sisterhood parade hand in hand in a show of flustered self-absorption.

Only one artist here truly does right by the niggling, irritating distraction of insomnia—but then, Louise Bourgeois is sort of a ringer by NMWA standards. Though Night: The Spider Weaves a Web of Friendships (1997) is burdened with a pretty rich title, this almost automatist set of scratchings is a pleasingly modest thing to look at, more doodle than drawing, its clots and dashes of red ballpoint ink evoking a tossed-off star burst rather than a woven web. In this and two untitled pages also from her series of Insomnia Drawings, Bourgeois makes no bones about the fact that she’d rather be asleep.

Molly Van Nice, on the other hand, succumbs to the temptation to make too much of her affliction. For Wakings (2002-2003), she constructed a bluntly obvious folding-screen fairy-tale backdrop to set the stage for a collection of late-night musings that would have stood better on their own. Stitched into a sort of miniature quilt displayed on a wooden stand are the random thoughts of her restless mind: fragments of poetry, the chorus to the Statler Brothers’ “Flowers on the Wall,” the Lizzie Borden playground rhyme, a reminder to write someone. There’s a list of the wives of Henry VIII, another of how their marriages ended; nearby there are some words from the notorious music-hall novelty revived by Herman’s Hermits. And finally, there’s a phrase to characterize Wasserman’s whole sorry affair: “The unbearable ego of insomnia.” CP