Beginning this winter through March 6, 2011, the National Museum of Women in the Arts
presents P(art)ners: Gifts from the Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, an exhibition of 28 contemporary photographs and sculptures drawn from the more than 300 works the couple has donated to the museum. P(art)ners demonstrates the Podestas' shared collecting vision and honors their participation in the inaugural TEDWomen conference in Washington D.C.
The Podestas' collaborative collecting practice inspired the NMWA staff to hand them the curatorial reins for this exhibition. The two have articulated the themes for P(art)ners and selected the works. Images of the female body or allusions to it (such as seen in G-Force Dive, a witty sculpture by E.V. Day (American, b. 1967) made from women's underwear stretched into the shape of fighter jets) present multiple views of contemporary feminine identity.
These works exploring the female body are paired with photographs of architecture. Although they are built by and for people, the interior spaces lack human presence and appear surprisingly abstract. The Podestas note that images of constructed environments complement those of the human figure: "They are what remain of us when we're not there."
Heather and Tony Podesta each head their own government relations firm in Washington, D.C., but they travel to contemporary art fairs and biennials around the world to discover outstanding new artists. P(art)ners features a striking series of photographs about travel by Nicoletta Munroe (American, b. 1968). For her "Paris Métro" series, Munroe, who has also worked as an art director in Hollywood, shot the brightly colored seats on the platforms of Paris's subway system. The rows of seats seem to stand in for the people who fill the stations each day.
Louisa Lambri (Italian, b. 1969) and Catherine Yass (British, b. 1963) each explore the power of architecture to affect psychological states. Although her images of modernist interiors are spare, Lambri photographs at moments when natural light creates evocative colors or shadows; sheexpresses what it feels like for her to be in each space. By experimenting with color processing, Yass imbues her images of commonplace sites with an otherworldly formal beauty. Her color transparencies mounted on light boxes in P(art)ners depict public restrooms in a glowing tones of gold, green and purple.
The exhibition's alternately poetic and wry photographs of interiors are enhanced by compelling images of the female body. British critic Germaine Greer recently observed that most art is about other art, and the Podestas have long collected work by artists whose vision is shaped by art history. Many of the figural works they selected for P(art)ners resound with representations of the female nude in historical literary or visual art.
Eva II, a digitally manipulated photograph by Dutch artist Margi Geerlinks (b. 1970), presents an image of a young woman with a large red protrusion at the bottom of her mouth. She appears to be a contemporary Eve eating the forbidden apple. Her body is curved like that of a serpent. The two nude-to-the-waist young women in a luminous photograph by Ann Lislegaard (Danish, b. 1962) are elegant but tough. They boldly gaze back at the viewer as one figure touches the other's breast. Their candid gesture is based on the famously enigmatic School of Fontainebleau painting Gabrielle d'Estrées and One of Her Sisters (c. 1594, Louvre).
Other artists in the exhibition leave the past behind and use the female figure to express the postmodern view of gender and sexual identity as a range of experiences rather than clearly defined categories. Hellen van Meene (Dutch, b. 1972) photographs individual girls acting out scenarios that she suggests. While some seem to fit into the conventional trope of the girly girl, others are more androgynous.
In her untitled sculpture made from a block of beeswax, Valeska Soares (Brazilian, b. 1957) carved two highly naturalistic mouths that each reveal a tongue and teeth, although their gender is unclear. A stream of perfumed oil flows across the top of the wax slab from one mouth to the other. The sensual nature of the sculpture's visual imagery is heightened by its appeal to our sense of smell.