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Nancy Graves: Civilized Exotic At Work

September 13, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON

SANTA BARBARA — The sculpture by Nancy Graves visiting the Museum of Art here until Oct. 25 kicks off a regular drunken-boat rampage of pictures in the mind. There is the bright, housebound young woman who lived next door when you were a kid. She'd invite you in for a hot dog and it would turn out to be a horse with toothpick legs, a Vienna sausage head and a mane of last night's noodles. While you ate, she made up a story about the horse's adventures.

Later there was the silver-maned diplomat's widow up the block who drank martinis for breakfast and read Tarot cards while surrounded by mementos of the far-flung posts held by her late husband the ambassador.

Graves has traveled impressively. Since graduating from Vassar in 1961 with a degree in English literature, she has lived in Paris and Florence, taught in San Francisco and journeyed to Nepal, India, Kashmir, Egypt, Peru, China and Australia. Even in these days of the International Art Circus, it is still mildly unusual for a sculptor to travel that much. Their work's bulk demands they stay pretty much in one place.

Graves, 46, does spend most of her time in her Manhattan studios, making pieces like the 50 or so currently on view. Mainly they look like the kind of flora Dr. Spock and Captain Kirk might discover when beaming down on an unknown planet called "Eden II." Plants come looping up from the ground with immense red or blue or yellow leaves. They have no roots and Spock wonders, logically, how they sustain themselves. When the landing party has passed, the plants pivot together and hold a gibbering conference considering the best way to capture these tasty-looking strangers. Mutant life forms. Leaf-headed "Colubra" folds vestigial hands over its stalk. "Hay Fervor" was a mechanical scythe that became a rooster. "Chimtra" was a Picasso lady in a hat transmogrified into a tree. That fern was an amphibious landing craft in a past life.

For all their extraterrestrial appearance, Graves' sculpture is made of a bric-a-brac of ordinary things. Most of the plant parts are the kinds of tropical growth most of us nurture with scant success in our domestic digs, charmed by leaves shaped like spears, monster lace butterfly and bat wings and humorously phallic gourds and squashes. They are twined together with an amazing array of common objects, from padlocks to C-clamps, aluminum-foil trays of Oriental vegetables and pieces of sound-proofing material.

Sounds like sculpture for the trash man to pick up next week when it all smells rotten and falls apart.

Ah, well, it does neither because the whole caboodle has been cast in bronze and steel, then welded together for the ages. There is an almost Pop-Expressionist edge here. Maria Muldaur singing "Midnight at the Oasis." Work is tamed but not deadened by the casting process, not with those hot fauve colors. Graves is nothing if not lively. "Agni" looks like the motions of a juggler frozen in mid-air. There is gee-whiz-how-did-she-do-that stage magic here, but it avoids being merely tricky by the quality of intelligence welded into it. "Agni" also suggests the ring of flame where the god Shiva dances.

The work does have something to do with odors. Graves' first sculpture was devoted to the making of life-size camels. A Mongolian Bactrain that acts as the exhibition's frontispiece approaches the accuracy of taxidermy. Happily it is just enough off to dramatize the wooly, sculptural bulk of the beast. The pelt, however, is the real thing and makes the gallery smell faintly of zoo. In practice, it is not a nuisance and serves to remind us that, figuratively speaking, that is not what we smell here.

Graves' work is heavily perfumed to the eye, especially works like "Trace." It is a kind of tree with foliage of blue-painted wire mesh. Its odorless olfactory appeal suggests that Graves has tapped into the idea of sense-crossing phenomena beloved of the French Symbolist poets. They searched for combinations of words that could evoke real sensual responses like color, texture and sound. For a lot of reasons, this exhibition could carry the same title as Baudelaire's "Les Fleurs du Mal." When Rimbaud looked out from the drunken boat of his mind, he probably saw Graves' sculpture standing seductively on the bank.

"Wait just a minute. A second ago you were talking about how her plants were galactic Pop Art. Then all of a sudden they were jugglers with Hindu leanings. Then wham, Graves is making camels like an animal stuffer in a natural history museum and the next thing you tell us, she is a kind of poetic Paloma Picasso filling the gallery with odors nobody can smell. Just what the heck is this art really about?"

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