The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) has announced its upcoming exhibition Willie Anne Wright: Artist and Alchemist, a retrospective of the photographer and painter’s remarkable 60-year career. The exhibition will be on view at the museum in Richmond from October 21, 2023, to April 28, 2024. Admission will be free.
“The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts recently acquired more than 230 photographs and 10 paintings by Willie Anne Wright, along with her comprehensive archive,” said VMFA’s Director and CEO Alex Nyerges. “Many of these works will be included in the upcoming exhibition Willie Anne Wright: Artist and Alchemist, the artist’s first career retrospective at a major art museum.”
Though an influential innovator, Willie Anne Wright (American, born 1924) deserves greater recognition for her artistic contributions. Born and raised in Richmond, Wright attended the College of William and Mary, where she audited art classes while pursuing a degree in psychology. Although she exhibited a few paintings as a student, Wright did not pursue art seriously until 1960, when she — by then a married mother of three — enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program at the Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University). While initially focused on making paintings, serigraphs and drawings, Wright shifted mediums to pinhole photography in 1972.
Curated by Dr. Sarah Kennel, VMFA’s Aaron Siskind Curator of Photography and Director of the Raysor Center, Willie Anne Wright: Artist and Alchemistshines a light on the artist’s contributions to Pop Art and as a pioneer in alternative photographic processes and the use of pinhole photography.
“Endlessly curious and experimental, Willie Anne Wright merges a deep interest in historical forms with a contemporary, irreverent sensibility,” said Dr. Kennel. “Her paintings and photographs explore the pulse of media culture, the pull of the past and the ways that gender and history shape experience. Her eye for both the enduring and the idiosyncratic and her mastery of her chosen media infuse her work with humor and liveliness.”
The exhibition includes 69 photographs and nine paintings by Wright. From playful and irreverent scenes of everyday life to ethereal evocations of the past, her paintings and photographs examine pop culture, feminine identity, the pull of history and the shifting cultural landscape of the American South from the 1960s to the 1990s.
Willie Anne Wright: Artist and Alchemist highlights different phases of Wright’s artistic journey. The exhibition begins by tracing her trajectory from painting to photography, showcasing her Pop Art paintings and prints made in the 1960s and 1970s. One of only a few women working in the Pop Art genre, Wright’s paintings grappled with the impact of mass media, television and popular music, including the iconic 1960s musical group Diana Ross and The Supremes. Yet these works also reveal that she was fascinated with the past and often integrated canny references to the histories of painting and photography into her work.
In 1972, Wright enrolled in a photography course with the aim of learning how to use a 35mm camera to document her artwork. Instead, she discovered pinhole photography — one of the earliest and simplest forms of the medium — and soon devoted the bulk of her creative energies to making photographs. She became one of the leading figures of the pinhole photography movement and was among the first artists to use Cibachrome color materials directly in her camera.
The exhibition showcases her earliest photographs, her exploration of color photography and her experiments with cameraless photograms. Wright’s humorous and sympathetic takes on contemporary life are captured in her photographs of dreamy bathers; glistening backyard pools; surreal compositions of found objects; portraits of self-possessed pregnant women and complex, layered photograms that evoke Victorian culture and imagery.
The exhibition also includes work from Wright’s best-known series Civil War Redux, in which she photographed Civil War reenactors. Wright’s engagement with history and place is also represented in captivating works from her Southland series, in which she explored the layered mythologies and vexed histories of the American South. These quiet, light-infused black-and-white photographs reflect on the complexities of the region’s past as well as the beauty of its landscapes.
Willie Anne Wright: Artist and Alchemist concludes with a focus on Wright’s photograms. Works from her series Channeling the Past reveal the artist’s sophisticated use of nineteenth-century source materials, including Victorian dresses, antique baby clothes and early vernacular photographs, to create evocative, moving narratives. This section also examines Wright’s fascination with the Brugmansia flower, which she incorporated into lush floral photograms, and her final series based on illustrations for the tarot.
“What unites Wright’s broad body of work is her curiosity, playfulness and experimental attitude to both seeing and reimagining the world around her,” said Dr. Kennel.
For more information about this and other exhibitions and programs at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, visit www.vmfa.museum.
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