New York

Nancy Graves

M. Knoedler Gallery

Nancy Graves is best known to me for her meticulous re-creations of camels and “prehistoric” animals. Whole rooms, like archeological sites, would be strewn with bones and skeletons. As sculpture opposing the then-reigning Minimalism, these could reclaim a certain “organic” structure, though they did so through the ancient traces of animals—an anthropologist’s view of the past. Such subject matter intensified the “primitive” aspect of Graves’ contribution to more anti-industrial post-Minimalism. The high art plugs were made quite clear: Pollock through Hesse and Smithson. It was an honest attempt to reintroduce a landscape of animal form into sculpture. (How prophetic these equinesque forms look today, now that there seems to be a whole school of horse artists.)

But Graves’ sculpture and her painting have been very different matters. The bones were definitely one thing, with many suggestive implications; the paintings have no anchor of allusion. The most blunt and crude attention is given to their making. The sculptures apparently require a great deal of careful fabrication involving precise, authentic detail and complex technical procedures and materials. I have read that Graves really knows the anatomy of her animals—bare bone structure, which is not only the “bare structure” of modern sculpture, but of a body. The procedures evident in the paintings are hardly complex. Is she making the point that painting, as opposed to sculpture, is an easy, lazy activity?

Graves applies the paint in what first appears to be a startling variety of ways: painted with brush (or stick), washy, sprayed (?), out of the tube, thick, thin, dotted with the brush, dotted from the tube, squiggly, straight, smooth, awkward—the “bare bones” of painting. I went through the whole show waiting for all this variety to coalesce into a vision. It never happened: the paintings are encyclopedias or painting manuals—how to lay paint down on a surface. The surface is the bare white background supporting (rather weakly) these “figures” of application. It’s all very spacey; nothing connects. It’s if the technical innovations of a Pollock drip painting were separated out, laid on an operating table like a set of surgical instruments. There are the slightest hints that this neutral white ground is an amorphous white sea. Many of the figures could be read as underwater flora, or, when repeated, like schools of fish. But such imagery filtered through a deliberately flatfooted abstract style makes those associations strained and, when pointed out, ridiculous.

Evidently, Graves is interested in treading the thin line between gross infelicity of style and high art scribbling. I found nothing charmingly naive about her dots of paint with their nipple finials. Nor was this style strong enough to make a statement, which ambitious, large-scale painting working on an extreme edge of presentability must make in order to have any effect. The array of techniques in each painting seemed too calculated, deliberate: as in much non relational art, there was no focus, no relationship between marks. This is an achievement of a kind, but one other artists have equaled—albeit in not so rigid and formal a manner.

Jeff Perone