Graves' art gains from paradox

February 14, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Nancy Graves has said of her art, "I've been trying to stand sculpture on its head," and the more you know about her art the more meaning that simple statement has. For when you stand something on its head, its position is the opposite of when it's right-side-up, and yet the thing itself hasn't really changed. It's different, but the same.

That kind of paradox abounds in Graves' art, as can be seen in the major show of her recent work opening at the University of Maryland Baltimore County on Thursday.

Curated by David Yager, professor of art at UMBC and director of its fine arts gallery, "Nancy Graves: Recent Painting and Sculpture" will include two-dimensional paintings and three-dimensional wall reliefs incorporating both painting and sculpture as well as free-standing sculpture. The 52-year-old New York sculptor says she is "pushing the boundaries between painting and sculpture. The sculpture becomes more painterly and the painting becomes more sculptural. That kind of dialogue has preoccupied me for the last three years or so."

This will be the first major exhibit of Graves' work since a traveling retrospective that appeared at Washington's Hirshhorn Museum in 1987, and in the intervening years the sculptor's work has become, if anything, deeper and more complex. Consulting some of those who are closest to it, including the artist herself, illuminates some of the paradoxes that can offer clues to an appreciation of the work.

Most obvious, perhaps, is that it's densely packed and yet it's light. Graves builds her sculpture of forms that are cast from objects in the world around us. In recent years she has widened her repertoire of those forms from natural objects, tools and such to include the areas of art, architecture and anatomical parts. Art scholar E. A. Carmean, writing in the show's catalog, presents a list of what can be found in Graves' sculpture, which includes:

Twigs, vines, ferns, bamboo, fungi, leaves, gourds, beans, sunflowers, bark, bananas, a starfish, horseshoe crabs, fish bones, a sheep's hoof, a Tyrannosaurus tooth, lobsters, crayfish, eggs, sardines, scissors, doorknobs, fans, eel spears, pitchforks, abacus, a lawn mower, a barbecue grill, wagon yokes, a plow, a windmill, Japanese calendars, Indonesian puppets, sheets of Islamic window tracery, the grooved cap of a niche, Egyptian and classical Greek capitals, a rib cage, teeth, lungs, blood vessels, bones from a child's jaw, and "forms based on other, earlier art [from] Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek and Roman art to the Italian renaissance to objects from Korea, Japan, Africa, and Australia."

Graves says, "My inventory is 500 to 1,000 forms that are already cast and ready to go." From these she selects a number to be used in each sculpture. But the results are not, as might be expected, visually heavy. On the contrary, their lightness is what has often been remarked on. Graves' sculpture, writes art critic Robert C. Morgan, "tends to work toward the suspension of forms rather than toward gravity."

And Graves notes that by "trying to stand sculpture on its head" she means in part "the absence of weight, in fact and by illusion in the pieces."

And Yager sees them as containing incipient movement through space. "Looking at them, it's almost like a dance performance," he says.

Although her work is full of references to the outside world, which can be fun to identify, Graves does not choose the components of a particular sculpture merely to re-present them to the viewer for what they originally were -- a fern, a tool, etc.

Rather, she considers the way their forms can be used in the overall structure; in that sense they are being used for their form rather than their content.

"At that point," says the artist, "I ignore totally what the original meanings were and forget about all that [in favor of] the structure, the formal process."

Similarly, the viewer is encouraged to see in these components both what they represent and what part they play in the Graves sculpture. "The new task for the viewer," she says, "is, after the original recognition, to relinquish that original knowledge and try to find out what it's doing, what its formal potential is."

By accomplishing this paradox of the willful non-recognition of recognizable forms, one will get closer to the essence of a Graves sculpture; for, as Carmean writes, "Her larger sculptural concerns . . . are essentially abstract." While it contains representational objects, a Graves sculpture as a whole doesn't represent something; it's abstract.

Graves thus accomplishes a synthesis of the modern and the postmodern. That is in itself a paradox, since, in its appropriations of earlier art, postmodernism contains a rejection modernist abstraction. But Graves stands this on its head: She appropriates all kinds of pre-existing things, including art, in order to create works which, because they are abstract, on one level reject the representationalism of their own components.

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