“As a child,” writes Krystyna Wasserman in her introductory essay “Swept Away by Magic,” “[Audrey] Niffenegger spent hours alone in her bedroom, dreaming, drawing, reading and writing.” Years later, those childhood pursuits became an adult career, spanning multiple creative disciplines. Now, fans of Niffenegger’s books and art have the chance to explore a kaleidoscopic cross-section of her work with a handsome volume of her visual art.
The collection serves as the catalog to an exhibition of Niffenegger’s work on display this summer at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, located in Washington, D.C. Her first major museum exhibition, the mid-career retrospective opens June 21 and runs through November 10. Featuring almost 250 works of art ranging from artist books, to graphic narrative work, to stand-alone illustrations, the exhibition is a substantial showcase of a diverse body of work.
For those who can’t make it to the museum, “Awake in the Dream World” offers a microcosmic alternative. In addition to the art excerpts, the book features three essays by Wasserman, the exhibition’s curator, Niffenegger’s colleague and Art Institute of Chicago curator Mark Pascale, and Niffenegger herself, shedding both insight and context on the history of her creative development. But of course the serious point of interest in the book is the art itself.
Much of the work showcases the artist’s penchant for the fantastic and macabre. There are profiles of skeletons, and showcases of circus scenes. The middle section, “States of Mind,” features numerous self-portraits from different periods in her life; featuring an eclectic assortment of headgear, ranging from hats to bird’s nests to an amiable monkey. The inspiration for this approach to auto-portraiture, she revealed during a presentation at Story Week 2011, came during her days in art school as a solution to the ethical problem of making art based off another’s visage. Also included in the book are samples from some of her physical books, prints from some of her published work, such as “The Three Incestuous Sisters,” and from books produced in more limited quantities, such as “The Spinster.” For fans of Niffenegger’s multifaceted body of work, it’s an accessible treasure trove of unique and revealing art by one of Chicago’s most creative visionaries. (Greg Baldino)
“Awake in the Dream World: The Art of Audrey Niffenegger”
By Audrey Niffenegger
PowerHouse Books, 120 pages, $29.95