New York

Nancy Azara

E.M. Donahue / A.I.R. Gallery

Part of the first wave of artists that began to explore feminist issues in earnest, Nancy Azara creates sculptures, from wood and found objects, that simultaneously evoke a mythical, pre-Christian era in an attempt to posit a collective feminine identity. Reflecting a kind of feminism that now seems quaint, if not simplistic, Azara’s project challenges patriarchal Western paradigms through the archetypal, Jungian-based notion of the goddess.

Two galleries featured Azara’s monumental “altars”: freestanding constructions fashioned of hand-carved wood, painted and covered with weathered gold leaf. The most notable of these works was the looming Spirit House of the Mother, 1994, at E. M. Donahue, a shimmering gold house with a blood-red interior covered with traces of the carving process that become metaphors for a journey to spiritual wholeness. Two more tabernacles were presented at A.I.R. A ghostly form marked with red, and recalling the work of Ana Mendieta, seemed to emerge from the narrow, three-sided Golden Structure, 1993—a self-conscious manifestation of the matter/spirit dialectic that fuels Azara’s entire oeuvre. Perhaps the most succinct summary of her recent work was Tree Altar, 1994, a rough, partially gilt, three-paneled altar framing a dead tree painted bright red. The inscription of both the natural world and the artist’s own body (the imprint of her hands as well as the marks recording her age) pointed to a form of worship in which the female body could be revered rather than derided.

Fleshing out both shows were smaller, wall-mounted works made of carved and painted wood and sometimes decorated with found objects. Paired Memory, 1994, a small, entirely gilt, double-paneled work of carved wood featuring two “abstract” footprints, seemed like a precious detail from one of the larger altars, while the more organic Veiled Goddess, 1993, with its gnarled coconut branches, had a presence all its own. These pieces were complemented by several powerful paper-and-paint collages; Light Circle, 1994, marked by scrawled shapes and subtle, translucent layering, was truly outstanding.

Born of an earlier feminist strategy for constructing an alternative feminine identity, Azara’s work, with its stubborn but dared Jungian underpinnings, seems more than a little anachronistic. Unfortunately, any attempt to view her work as a politically charged spiritual brand of feminism—a critical stance that would place it in the context of the work of contemporary artists such as Amalia Mesa Bains, Alison and Betye Saar—is frustrated by the New Age rhetoric that surrounds it. The accompanying catalogue text describes Spirit House as follows: “We are invited, but there is a price—the terrible radiance of our own knowledge, proscribed but riveting—that threatens to blind us if ever confronted.” Azara’s work navigates the narrow straits between essentialism and identity politics well enough on its own, and is better off without this kind of romanticization, which always serves to misrepresent artwork with a spiritual dimension.

Jenifer P. Borum