Nancy Davidson

N.A.M.E. Gallery

Nancy Davidson tapes off a randomly selected area of wooden floor, covers it with a paper strip, and makes a transfer rubbing of the wood-grain to the strip. Depending upon the number of strips she needs for a piece, she may rub the same floor area as many as 40 or 50 times. The clarity or smudginess of the transferred wood-grain reveals accidents of the rubbing process: pressure of the hand, position of the body, or level of fatigue. She then tapes the finished strips on the wall in various arrangements.

Though scaled to exhibition-site dimensions, the strips are premade at the studio. They line up in symmetry, asymmetry, or modular regularity, with any effect of stasis or animation created by their proportions alone. Like an architectural window-wall her paper strips have the appearance of a skin stretched over a support, a skin that celebrates the qualities of the structure that holds them up. Their “grain” may be taken as intrinsic to the body of the paper rather than applied as extraneous decorative ornament and the organization of strips in each arrangement has an underlying regular rhythm that is calculable and consistent.

Davidson treats her work both as a long-continuing object and as a transient gesture. For example, her progression from a closed to an open overall arrangement has been independent of any immediate response to a particular site. Her 1975 N.A.M.E. piece, with edges even all around, had the quality of stasis; her current N.A.M.E. “V,” with one long stepped edge, has the energetic quality of vibration wherever strip-top and flat wall meet. For a 1976 piece, she connected strip-tops by drawing dotted lines on the wall, so that the whole work seemed to advance and recede like a sculpture on a panel.

Davidson may peel these arrangements off the wall, throw them away, and fancy it is all response to time and place, but in truth a thoroughly site-oriented installation would take its rubbing from the site-floor rather than the private studio. A pivotal study in this philosophical confusion was her recent Iowa Museum of Art piece which had its arrangement from an old studio environment, its wood-grain transfer rubbing from a new studio floor, and its scale from the museum itself. Yet surprisingly enough the piece was strong.

In Davidson’s current show, one new work leans even further toward becoming an “object.” The four center strips of her Iowa piece are copied more than 20 times, their size and shape forming an irregular overall configuration about the breadth of a medium-sized easel painting. Relinquishing the randomly chosen, taped-off floor area, Davidson dropped the strips and moved them around, catching certain special selected wood-grain and paint markings and using them like lines in traditional drawing. An S-shaped paint squiggle which also figured in the Iowa piece becomes a connecting motif. She has also abandoned the simple transfer rubbing process, experimentally chalking, powdering and painting to enhance or suppress the grain. After comparing the way in which all these various “contents” contribute to the repeated arrangement, she then exhibited her favorite.

This new direction remedies the chief area of visual failure in her prior work: when the random floor-area was not grainy enough to yield a hearty transfer, the balance between idiosyncratic grain and geometric strip broke down and an overall hard-edge slickness deterred the viewer from communing with the process. For Davidson now to take personal responsibility for the no-longer-unconscious rubbing as well as for the arrangement might insure a vital, earthy balance. It might finally be observed that when Davidson divorces herself from exterior site and personally generates all the other aspects of her work, it certainly does seem arbitrary to take information from a floor.

C. L. Morrison