San Francisco

Nancy Graves

Reese Palley Gallery

Nancy Graves came to San Francisco to teach a summer session and while here she constructed an elaborate thicket of fantasy plant forms. The stems are of structural steel rods, generally erect though in a couple of cases they zigzag like a staircase, perhaps simulating a climbing model. Each plant form is divided into leaves, tendrils, flowers, nuts, shells, bones, pods—too many on each stem to approximate anything we know on this planet; such an otherworldly place would have a botany of several sexed plants. The thicket entitled Variability and Repetition of Variable Forms is mounted in the Reese Palley Gallery’s new, large, and utterly white (floor, ceilings and all) space. The forms were too close together to handily enter, but it was possible to tentatively enter a half pace to examine the true nature of the central members. The experience was a bit like being inside a world of Klee twittering machines. I expect others will be more brash and plunge in as one tends to do with thickets. The piece might be described as a sculptural drawing since it is primarily linear, but it is impossible to extract the people on the other side from one’s apprehension, and you are part of their general impression, too. Also, large as the room is, it is seldom that one can look at the complex as a whole. The work is environmental rather than traditionally sculptural. Having abandoned the pedestal, sculpture has grown random and proliferated up and down the gallery. This tendency promises a more and more engaging art: in the presence of such a construction many people feel a compulsion to act out, be theatrical; the work of art becomes a set and props and the viewer, a participant. Nancy Graves’ group called Shaman in the Whitney Annual had much this same looming, territory-invading characteristic, but the parts of Shaman were more easily separable. Variability . . . is denser, more a total textural entity, throwing the starring role to the participant, and thus making it more successful in inducing the theatrical totemic experience. The viewer comes to feel like deer, bird, or—no, not camel-dinosaur (?), perhaps; Graves has worked with imagery of that order earlier. There were movies of camels in the gallery’s back room, very possibly the photo research the artist did for her life-sized camels which preceded these more abstract groups. I was surprised to find out that I was fascinated by camels; camels living in the real world are quite different in behavior from the zoo variety, and I was seeing what a camel does with that odd physique. The leap from mocking up life-sized camels a year ago to this cement age garden of nettles presents me with a conundrum which breaks my head, but I like it; it is mad.

Knute Stiles