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Enigmatic Images Unveiled in Telling Secrets: Codes, Captions, and Conundrums in Contemporary Art
Alison Saar, Snake Man, 1994. Woodcut and lithograph on paper, 33 1/2 x 42 1/2 in. Photo: National Museum of Women in the Arts. Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist.
WASHINGTON, DC.- With contemporary art, what you see is rarely all you get. Artists today visually and thematically layer abstraction, text, symbols, cultural references, and personal experiences to create meaning and depth in their work. Telling Secrets: Codes, Captions and Conundrums in Contemporary Art features 39 paintings, photographs, drawings, sculptures, and prints from the National Museum of Women in the Arts’s collection selected to inspire viewers to make multiple interpretations and inscribe their own ideas and experiences onto each work.

Prior to the 20th century, most art aimed to tell familiar stories or reflect everyday life and express accepted social mores. Twentieth-century art movements such as abstraction, performance, and conceptual art fostered a more interpretive role for the viewer. Contemporary artists relish the fact that the “meaning” of works of art is not fixed but rather shaped by each viewer, and create work that intentionally puzzles, contradicts, seduces, and repels. It encourages viewers to engage in perceived narratives by including recognizable images and legible texts, but it rarely provides all the necessary information to yield a definitive interpretation.

“The museum started out with only 500 works in its collection. In the past decade, the collection has grown to more than 3,000, with an impressive selection of contemporary work that allows us the freedom to create exhibitions with specifically tailored themes,” says Museum Director Susan Fisher Sterling.

The artists in Telling Secrets carefully employ techniques to keep their works thematically indeterminate. Some artists use varying levels of abstraction to prevent their art from being overly narrative. Others layer their works with myriad images so that viewers must decide whether to focus on one or attempt to synthesize all. Several artists in the exhibition develop fantasy-based imagery to allude to spirituality, sexuality, or mortality. Others blend text with their pictorial elements to encourage varying interpretations.

The exhibition juxtaposes artwork by artists from around the world, allowing viewers to draw parallels across different cultures. Each artist has her own technique, symbols, and personal experience from which to draw, but they share the common ground of contemporary art’s visual ambiguity and global scope. Leonora Carrington, Jane Hammond, Robin Kahn, Hung Liu, Shirin Neshat, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, and Adriana Varejão are among the 23 featured artists.


National Museum of Women in the Arts | Telling Secrets | Contemporary Art | Leonora Carrington | Jane Hammond | Robin Kahn |




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