Over a hundred years ago, the sculptor Elisabet Ney created a unlikely haven for contemporary artists at her home and studio in Hyde Park. Today, the Ney Museum carries on this legacy with a series of exhibitions that feature the work of contemporary women identifying artists.
Tucked in a smaller space off to the left of the main room, the current show, “The Mother The Witch The Hysteric” features seven large-scale digital and lithographic prints by Austin artist Annie May Johnston and engages directly with Ney’s life and work, especially in the way that both artists represent the conflict and distress involved in negotiating the cultural strictures of femininity.
Although the stressors and complexities are different, art that explores this distress rings as true today as in 1905, when Elisabet Ney completed her iconic sculpture of Lady Macbeth. When Johnston first visited the museum after being invited by Ney director Jade Walker to plan a show, she looked around and saw the many statues of prominent European and Texan men that dominate the main room.
She remembers thinking, “it’s like, white man sculpture, white man sculpture. And then finally, this sculpture of Lady Macbeth. And I felt like, oh, what a relief.”
Lady Macbeth gave Johnston a place to begin the research that drives her artistic process: “Since I’m a printmaker, I’m always looking at print history. The way that I mostly do all of my art is, it usually starts with searching image databases.”
That’s where Johnston found the 1830s illustration of Lady Macbeth, an aquatint by Kenny Meadows, that provided source material for many of the images in the exhibition. Meadows’ illustration comes from a book of commentary on Shakespeare’s heroines published just before Elisabet Ney was born, by the Victorian-era art historian Anna Brownell Jameson — a fascinating figure whose intercontinental travels and independent streak mirror Ney’s.
“I found [Jameson’s] text just from those images, and her book is free,” said Johnston. “I guess I never think about feminists in the 1830s.”
Jameson’s book, which asserts the multi-dimensional nature of women in Shakespeare’s plays, gave Johnston a window into Ney’s complex concept of femininity in a time when women’s roles were very narrowly defined. A notorious accessory to murder like Lady Macbeth couldn’t really be feminine, so the dominant story went: if you were a devoted wife and mother, “it’s not in your nature to do all these other things.” Johnston theorizes that, for Ney (and her circle of society women friends in Austin), to publicly identify with a character who defied those roles must have been risky.
On the afternoon when I visited the exhibition, sunlight streamed in through a south-facing window, here and there shining through ripples in Johnston’s prints on white polyester chiffon, which hang from the room’s original picture rail on bright red rope. Johnston was thinking about the draped garments of Ney’s Lady Macbeth as she chose the fabric for her prints.
“It’s also a bit dramatic,” she laughed.
Indeed, the prints lean in to drama: an intensity of emotional experience, transparently represented. While the visage of Lady Macbeth from Meadows’ Victorian rendering — composed even in its anger — features prominently in many of the prints, Johnston often replaces the original features with the anguished ones from Ney’s sculpture and even with versions of her own face.
“There starts to be this sort of like kinship or relationship that I was building between us,” Johnston said.
Text from the “Out, damned spot!” scene in Macbeth — drawn from the caption of the Victorian illustration — appears in some of the prints, but Johnston has blotted out all the words except the sheer expression of distress, “Oh! Oh! Oh! –.” Johnston is interested in representing women who are furious, overwhelmed or desperately remorseful — like Ney’s Lady Macbeth — as a counterpoint to all the placid, plaster men who populate so much of the museum.
Throughout the prints, a small collection of images repeats and iterates to inform this multidimensional concept of women’s experience. The daggers drawn from Meadows’ engraving at one point appear to pierce a pair of wringing hands, but in other images create “kind of a house,” as Johnston explained, not menacing but protecting the women who appear below them on the picture plane. Vessels might be cauldrons, or hourglasses, or wombs. Like the red cords suspended above these images, the lines of pouring liquid in Johnston’s hand-drawn renderings remind us that blood comes with birth as well as murder.
Johnston told me that scholarly discourse around the figure of Lady Macbeth centers on her representation as an “anti-mother.” Knowing that Ney designed the sculpture partly in response to her feelings of inadequacy and regret as a mother, Johnston’s exhibition introduces the complexity of her own experience as a parent. Two self-portraits, small in the corners of otherwise blank chiffon panels, frame a blocked door on the west wall of the room: the artist’s face screaming, and then sleeping. These candid images evoke the intensity of living as a parent, where only sleep, sometimes so hard to come by, lets us blot it all out.
Johnston’s medium connects intrinsically to these themes. In considering the work of mothers, “I like to think of this long line of wombs, or something like matrices. A matrix is that which one uses to reproduce and comes from the Latin word root for womb. I spend a lot of time thinking about indirect production and labor and printmaking. Words like, kiss, spit, bone, bite, bleed, margin: there are all these words that are so physically connected” in printmaking, Johnston explained.
In broadening documented experience and social awareness, printmakers have a long history as seekers of liberation, Johnston reminded me. She takes this legacy as an ethic for her work: “there’s something that needs to be urgent about it.”
So the Ney Museum might feel like a refuge from the city around it, or even a step back in time, but it, too, hews to this consciousness-raising ethic in how it records so concretely the experience of a female artist in her time. Off the top of our heads, Johnston and I could come up with only a few other examples of museums anywhere devoted exclusively to the work of an individual female artist. Citing the welcoming, idiosyncratic nature of the museum, Johnston said of Ney, “I felt very free to collaborate with her.”
Though first impressions might lead a viewer elsewhere, it’s themes of support, collaboration, and kinship across time that emerge most strongly in this exhibition. In the print where daggers cross to form almost a roof, the hands that clutch them extend toward each other, too. In another, Johnston’s drawing of her own clasped hands replaces those from a photograph of Ney’s statue.
Johnston said: “I imagine what her hand would be like reaching out to make a connection, or to hold, through time. Or to be like, ‘I’m here too’.”
‘The Mother The Witch The Hysteric’ continues through March 19 at the Elisabeth Ney Museum, 304 E. 44th St. Admission is free. theney.org/visit