The late Nancy Graves, who in 1969 became the first female artist to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, was known for her brightly colored enameled-bronze sculptures. The works were regurgitations of history and the natural world infused with lyricism, and in their use of appropriation and off-kilter stance they were ahead of their time. Graves was also a pioneer in her use of encaustic—she used wax, in conjunction with burlap and skin, to fashion the curvaceous, life-size camels that first caused a splash in the art world—and for that reason it had long been the hope of Richard Frumess, principal and founder of R&F Handmade Paints, the encaustic paint manufacturer in Kingston, to show the work of this blue-chip artist. That dream has now become reality, with the Gallery at R&F exhibiting eight of her mixed-media paintings, dating from the late 1970s and early 1980s, on loan from the Nancy Graves Foundation.
Graves was inspired by weather and NASA moon maps, on occasion interpreting the aerial configurations as pointillist dots of color, as seen in the four-paneled Dissilient. The connection with cartography isn’t always obvious, however, given the expressionist idiom of these works and their formal disjunction. In the large-scale Areol, for example, the purple radial of circular lines, like the bleating signal from a radar tower, is jammed against a fiery caterpillar of red-orange, the color of a torrid heat wave on a weather map. Swirling areas of orange, blue, and brown lines are vaguely configured in a radial shape, which is overlaid with green snippets of lines, like bits and pieces of DNA. The painting refuses to coalesce.
Up close, however, it gains power. The richly layered surface beguiles with its overlays of dots, vortexes of truncated lines, patterned ovals and circles, brushy irregular patches, and drips and impasto of encaustic, a subtle relief that literally injects the abstracted vision into the viewer’s space. Bodily scanned, the paintings take on depth; they are experienced as environments, revealed through time. Follow, for example, the passage of free-floating printed circles of brown, orange, and yellow in Syncrete, and you are led on a fantastic journey in inner-outer space, from dense but translucent tissues of scrawls and dots to jags and downward projectiles of blue like water or sky, to the corners of the black vacuum of space, inset with a huge, exploding white-hot nebulae, that’s yet as delicately tinted as a June afterglow.
According to Linda Kramer, executive director of the Nancy Graves Foundation, Graves also incorporated natural forms and ancient artifacts into her paintings. The passage of radial, crossed lines in Ikop, resembling a shell, is a common motif representing a leaf, while the delicate web of gray lines in Equivalent was inspired by a quipu, an ancient Peruvian counting device. Deciphering these paintings becomes a kind of excavation process, ferreting out traces of leaves, artifacts, land forms, aerial views, and symbols from a polyglot of brush strokes.
Graves never stopped learning and investigating, gleaning ideas from her extensive travels to Egypt, Morocco, Central America, Europe, the Southwest, Peru, and the Far East. The artist, who spent the last five years of her life in Kingston—she was married to local dentist Avery Smith—also made prints, shot films, designed sets for experimental dance and theater groups, taught, and picked up a roomful of awards. The force of her inventiveness perhaps gained more traction in her sculptures than in her paintings. Nonetheless, the confident brushwork, exuberant energy, and ambition of these large-scale works rub off on the viewer, vividly evocating a peripatetic spirit.
“Nancy Graves Encaustics” will be on view at R&F Handmade Paints in Kingston through November 20. (845) 331-3112; www.rfpaints.com.
- Nancy Graves, Areol, oil and encaustic on canvas, 64" x 88", 1978.