Ambitious display of Graves' works challenges viewers


February 23, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

There are two dangers in viewing Nancy Graves' works, a dozen of which are in the important exhibit "Nancy Graves: Recent Works" at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. One is that we will simply relax and enjoy them -- for their wonderfully colorful surfaces, their intriguing juxtapositions of parts, and their recognizable elements, from a pitchfork to a classical head.

The other danger is that we will concentrate too much on the references and meanings of the individual parts, picking them apart to produce a plethora of meanings. Is that a Michelangelo hand, holding up a piece of a photocopying machine in "Esthetic Dominance"? Does that mean that we have descended from the originality of the Renaissance to the age of limitless copies of unimportant things? Is it perhaps a slap at the repetitions of Andy Warhol?

Graves' works are certainly about something, but what they're about is larger and more general than the sum of the meanings of their components.

They certainly have to do with art history, but also with the life cycle and the cycles of civilization. By making unified works from many sources, Graves suggests the complexity of the individual as a reflection of a greater cosmic complexity, one that makes sense even if it cannot be fully understood.

And in combining forms from many sources in many ages, she asserts a confidence that the continuity of art is as natural a process as the growth of a flower or the flow of a river. These are essentially optimistic works.

They are also about the relationships, sometimes extremely unlikely, between and among forms, and between illusion and reality and literal and symbolic meaning.

Graves statement, "I've been trying to stand sculpture on its head," can be taken to mean that she is going against the flow of recent art history by using a postmodernist appropriation of earlier art to build abstract works. But she also stands some of these sculptures literally on heads -- casts of heads from classical sculpture appear at the bottom of "Between Sign and Symbol" and "Esthetic Dominance."

Because Graves has recently been working back and forth between painting, sculpture, and wall pieces that include both, we can see the real become illusory in these works.

The spiraling metal form that exists in real space in "Splendid Mental Isolation" becomes a painting of the same form in "While Embracing," where it creates the illusion of space. And both the sculptural and the painted versions appear in "Diagnosing the Canvas," where they talk to one another about space and discipline.

This is the largest show of Graves' work since the mid-career retrospective that came to Washington's Hirshhorn Museum six years ago. It's quite a coup for UMBC's Fine Arts Gallery and its director (and the show's curator) David Yager.

It enables us to look at Graves' recent development in depth, which leads to the conclusion that, as challenging as these works are on many levels, Graves may have been trying to do too much in this period.

In working in painting, sculpture and a hybrid of the two, she has produced works of varying success. Judging by what's here, she thinks better in sculpture than in painting. And in filling these works with so many references that she sometimes makes them incomprehensible, we may succumb to the temptation to see them as agglomerations.

It is possible that in another 10 years, the last five will be seen as a transitional period for Graves, when she was trying out ideas that later became more fully resolved. But that is not to say that these works fail. Like all of Graves' work, they have a great deal to offer, and together they form a richly rewarding show.


Where: Fine Arts Gallery, University of Maryland Baltimore County, 5401 Wilkens Ave.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays

Call: (410) 455-3188.

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