Insomnia awakens unfettered creativity

“I am an insomniac, so for me the state of being asleep is a paradise I can never reach.” The phrase looms over the new exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts like a prayer to Hypnos, the Greek god of slumber. “But I still try to conquer the insomnia; it is conquerable.”

Insomnia: Night Landscapes, it turns out, is a sleepy little collection of pieces ranging in aesthetic and philosophical value. Some of the works on display transcend the conventions of conceptual art – a tall charcoal rendering of an impaled man being propped up by the spear through his belly is particularly affecting. But much of the exhibit tends toward the obvious, thinly-veiled patterns of expressionism.

A trio of folded paper designs called “Five Luminous Towers: A Book to Read in the Dark,” offer a new twist on the “pop-up” book. Modeled after Italy’s Liguria region, the tiny towers are lit from within and sit atop books with maps and sheet music printed in deep blue ink. Carol Burton, the artist, has described the towers as beacons to “comfort the sleepless and lost at sea.”

Another take on the same theme is a piece depicting a large baby “popping” out of the artist’s imagination; toys dangle in the background and the faceless child is scaled out of proportion to represent the overwhelming effects of birth. But the black and white, 3-D composition lacks the meaning of similar works seen in the op-ed section of The New York Times on a daily basis.

Athena Tacha’s “Singularities,” series of pixilated drawings the color and texture of sedimentary lava rock, suggest the vastness of the universe and the importance of detail. Swirls of tiny dots form gleaming black celestial bodies like fragments of coal studded in a twilight landscape. While the process was clearly meticulous, each piece looks rather like a large version of something you’d pick up at a gift shop in Honolulu.

Easily the most imposing (and satisfying) work featured in the exhibition is M. Jordan Tierney’s “Emprise at 4 a.m.,” constructed out of thousands of dominos, burned and stained wood, piano keys and garter materials. A woman looks up into the heavens, the wind blowing her hair, her body rising out of the lacy, rusty loam. Tierney has gone to great extremes; every inch of the massive mural is carved with dedication and thoughtfulness. It’s an unqualified masterpiece.

Similarly profound are a couple of artists’ nod to Dante. In “Denial,” a morose figure is seen in the shadows of the painting, staring straight at the viewer. “Alone” examines a man at the center of a war zone sitting on a pile of skulls and bones, which is a particularly impacting image, given the present state of our world.

In the land of nod, nothing is quite clear, and the faint glow on the horizon beckons like the dreamy siren song of the isle of Bali Hai. At the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the rich, green Lee Krasner painting in the room adjacent to this new exhibit answers the call like a true, radiant beacon. And Insomnia, in all its wistful ambition, feels more like something you have to wake up from in order to see the light.

Through Nov. 30 at the National Museum for Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave., NW. Open Mondays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $6 for students.

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