Progression of Art
Nancy Graves' 1969 solo exhibition at the Whitney was critically and popularly acclaimed. Her life-size mixed media CAMELS sculpture was the star of this show, capturing the imagination of visitors and critics alike. These two specimens (Kenya Dromedary and Mongolian Bactrian) were made from a mix of wood, metal, polyurethane, wax, paint, burlap and real animal skin. They have a particular handcrafted, naturalistic, and haptic feel, and were displayed in a small space, meaning the viewer would be up close and personal with the towering synthetic animals and their oddly tactile fur.
Although they are sculpted with multiple art as well as natural media, these scientifically named CAMELS might easily be mistaken for taxidermy exhibits in a natural history museum. This work brings museum display techniques into the modern art gallery to challenge the conception that art should be displayed in ways completely different and separate to artefacts, natural specimens, and scientific information. Graves was one of the first artists to work in this way, and was hugely influential on later contemporary artists, such as Mark Dion.
In original and radical departure from the factory-like commercial sleekness of Pop Art and Minimalism, which dominated the art world of 1960s New York, Graves instead returns to the resonance and wonder of our exploration and documentation of the natural world. The camel, to her, was a perfect starting point in re-awaking our wonder at natural design; "Why camels? Because camels shouldn't exist. They have flesh on their hooves, four stomachs, a dislocated jaw. Yet with all of the illogical form the camel still functions. And though they may be amusing, they are still wonderful to watch."
Mixed Media Sculpture - Collection Ludwig Forum, Aachen
In 1970, Graves travelled to Morocco to examine her muse, the camel, in the flesh. She made several films on this trip, including Izy Boukir, a 20-minute piece examining the movement of camel herds, their behavior, and interactions. The film is set to music by her friend and contemporary, Phillip Glass, and filmed in 16mm color film.
Following on from her 1969 sculptures, this film treads the line between viewing the camels from a scientific, natural history, documentarian gaze, and simultaneously concentrating on their extraordinarily alien, surreal presence. Graves said she wanted to "permit the animal motions to determine structure.... Through the edited sequential duration, camel morphology views with the viewer's inherent anthropomorphism. For me this film is the most successful in that the impression of these animals as primordial beings existing in barren yet awesomely beautiful surroundings far outweighs a consciousness of complicated editing and sound relationships".
Thus, Graves uses the biological form of the camels to determine the formal qualities of the film: speed, cuts, and edits, as well as Glass's original accompanying score. The film's narrative structure, multiple viewpoints, and focus on the natural world remain captivating to filmmakers and critics, and the work's complex relationship between form and content in the service of the humble camel means it remains an integral, original, and unusual piece of film history.
16mm color film
Bones and their Containers (to Martin Cassidy)
By the 1970s, Graves' sculptural output became looser and more abstract. In this 1971 piece she experiments with mimicking scientific processes of archaeological discovery, and also dissection, by breaking down the animal form even further into individual bones. This installation of seemingly beautifully preserved and scattered bones was actually handcrafted out of steel, gauze, acrylic, plaster, burlap and wax. Displayed in a naturalistic scatter pattern directly on the exhibition space floor, the installation encourages the visitor to navigate around the "bones", exploring and discovering as they go.
The work asks the viewer to engage different senses; of texture and movement as well as vision, in a shared process of scientific and natural observation. Rather than using a whole animal, now a single bone can be an entry point to unlock a feeling of the sublime artistry of nature. While Graves has often been labeled as dispassionate or objective in her art due to the way in which she uses motifs of documentation, museum display, and scientific study, in this piece we can see that she simultaneously sees every piece of nature through an artist's eye. While she sees art as scientific, science is also art. The work shows a sense of passion and wonder at the natural world we live in.
As Christina Hunter, director of the Nancy Graves Foundation, puts it "she was very interested in the ideas and the explorations that art could offer. That art could reveal and make one think about aspects of the world, aspects of psychology that had hitherto not been seen. So that art, in a way, could open people's eyes to looking way back into prehistory... art could also allow people to look way forward into the future, which is what she called outer space... science offered us ways of exploring the world that in a way were an extension of what artists were doing already.."
Steele, Gauze, acrylic, burlap, wax, plaster - Collection of the Nancy Graves Foundation
Nancy Graves' art continued to draw on themes and motifs of mapping, movement, abstraction, scientific documentation, and of course, camels. Graves became fascinated by new NASA techniques of mapping and recording moonscapes. For the 1980 print Vertigo, Graves drew on satellite maps of the moon and the sea floor, alongside her own observations of camel herd movement patterns in Morocco in the 1970s. Bright, swirling colors are layered over topographical patterns made up of detailed dots, dashes and lines to create a complex abstract piece, which clearly mixes a painterly approach with a more precise and rigid map style underneath.
As Christina Hunter puts it, Graves "sensed she was making art in the 'information age," Graves was on the brink of the age of mass information as we know it today in the world of the Internet. Her art pre-empted the way in which research and data could become democratic; the way in which scientific or natural history studies and imagery could become so easy to access and explore. By using maps published by NASA in Vertigo, Graves began in the 1980s to capitalize on the ways in which new technologies allow us to understand humanity, and the world around us. The layering of maps of moonscapes, the moon, and the patterns of camels Graves had directly observed speaks to a mystical interconnectedness of all natural things, as well as speaking to the impossibility of conceiving the vertiginous scale of NASA's maps to human eyes.
Color screenprint on Arches Cover paper - Puccino Fine Art Gallery, New York
While Graves's interests in natural history and the documentation of nature were constants throughout her career, they were not always her sole points of reference. They also came into contact with her lifelong interests in anthropology. In the mid to late 1980s, Graves began to regularly incorporate references to ancient Egypt, classical antiquity and the Renaissance into her work, most likely informed by her travels around the Mediterranean from her early 20s onwards.
In this screenprint from 1984, Graves took inspiration from artifacts she had seen at The Jewish Museum. The bird figure in the bottom cover is from an early Byzantine mosaic floor tile, and a Roman terracotta head inspires the head diagonally opposite. These more figurative elements are overlaid with abstract lines and shapes, suggestive of organic forms (frogs, fig seeds) and classical nudes. Graves said that she used this layering effect to "simulate the layers of human history". The resulting image takes an anthropological gaze at the way in which humans have existed on earth and responded to the world around them for thousands of years, and continue to do so. The 'Anthropocene' is the current geological age, defined as the period in which human activity has been the dominant influence on the natural world. The literal layering of human and natural influence in this work speaks to the codependence and friction between people and their natural world as one that is part of both anthropological and natural histories.
Screenprint on paper - The Jewish Museum, New York
Towards the end of her career, Nancy Graves worked most prominently with cast metal sculptures.
About these works, she said, "The larger meaning is that information of tremendous range and depth and cross-cultural ramifications is available instantly to all of us (today)." This comment about the democratization and overloading of information shows these sculptures are important early documents of the digital age.
This piece, made in 1990, is made of brass, aluminum, bronze, polychrome patina and paint. It is made of welded casts of different natural objects; a fragment of a human face, a crab, foliage, mixed with more rigid synthetic geometric shapes and a metal grille. These fragmented parts are coated in brightly colored paint.
This piece shows us that Graves was experimenting with media and techniques right up until her death. She continued the push herself as an artist to try casting in different, and often difficult metals, glass, and wax.
This playful sculpture questions the presence of the human between the natural world and the modern man-made world. The human fragment literally balances between these component parts of the human experience on earth; natural, and technological. The fantastical and fractured result is full of wonder at the human place in this world and again documents a fragile balancing act between art, humanity, and the natural world. Graves said; "We are born and we die. By understanding our interrelatedness to the chain gang of life, meaning comes".
Aluminium, bronze, brass, polychrome patina, and paint - Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Missouri