On Tuesday, January 20 American Art will screen Aves: Magnificent Frigate Bird, Great Flamingo, a film by Nancy Graves, artist and former member of the museum's Commission. The screening is as part of our exhibition The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art. Former public programs assistant, Laurel Fehrenbach, had a chance to speak with Christina Hunter, director of the Nancy Graves Foundation, who will introduce this experimental film. The screening will be held at the museum's McEvoy Auditorium, starting at 6 p.m. Admission is free.
Eye Level: Did you know Nancy Graves before coming to the Foundation? What drew you to her and her work?
Christine Hunter: I did not know Nancy Graves personally, but I knew her work —her sculptures primarily— before being nominated director at the Foundation. The three justifiably famous Camels that were first shown at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1969 are in the collection of Canada's National Gallery of Art in Ottawa. I am from Montreal, so of course we all knew those, and the other large hanging "totemic" sculpture in their collection.
As a practicing artist, I am very drawn to Graves' work and her skill at manipulating and combining so many sources and techniques into layered yet cohesive works of art that reward lengthy looking. As a scholar I find Graves' ideas and her re interpretations of the scientific charts, diagrams, maps and documents, etc., that are the points of departure for her compositions extremely compelling. (In an amazing co incidence, as part of my very first museum internship while in college, I helped install a Nancy Graves Camel at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The only woman on the team, I was given gloves and charged with "fluffing the fur" of the Camels to hide the joints where the parts of the beast came together!)
EL: We are very lucky to have a wonderful piece of Grave's work, Pleistocene Skeleton on view. At first glance it looks like something that should be at the natural history museum, but how might you recommend a visitor approach the piece of art? How would Graves have wanted it to be experienced?
CH: Graves was deeply interested in the philosophical and aesthetic issues that surround the relationship between art, reality and experience. She questioned the difference between verisimilitude in a science museum compared to an art museum and what it means to make something that looks like a scientific statement, but is in fact an entirely handmade work of art, and a single unique piece. Graves stated that "By taking natural history as my point of departure, I was attempting to answer questions about the difference between reality and illusion. The camels are a paradigm... and were a personal statement in reaction to Pop and Minimalism, which allowed me to progress in an independent direction."
Questions surrounding reality and art are being investigated again by contemporary artists working in the digital era of virtual reality.
EL: At the end of the month you'll be joining us for a film screening of AVES where Graves was experimenting with nature film and specifically focusing on birds. What do you think inspired her fascination with avian imagery?
CH: Film was a direct expression of Graves' fundamental interest in movement. Her dispersive, multi-part, and large sculptures, including your Pleistocene Skeleton, absolutely require that the viewer move around the piece to consider all of the parts, the relationship of the parts to each other, and then the relationship of all of these points of view to a possible whole. That whole is composed of shifting positive and negative spaces. This interest in movement extended to animal movement, such as that of camels, explored in her previous films, and to the flight movements of birds against the "negative" empty space of the sky.
Graves' fascination with movement included Eadweard Muybridge's studies of human and animal locomotion, and by extension avant-garde dance, and beyond that planetary movement within the cosmos.
While her initial points of departure were references to the natural sciences, in the course of her life, she investigated data from fields as diverse as paleontology, archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, evolution, physiology and astrophysics, to name but a few.
EL: Moving between sculpture and film must be a challenge for any artist. What other media did Graves like to experiment with?
CH: Graves is recognized primarily as a post-minimalist sculptor for her early camel, bone, and floor installations, and for her later polychrome bronzes. However, Graves, a prolific artist who experimenting in many media, also produced five films, and created set designs, and developed a sustained body of paintings, drawings, and prints over the course of a three-decade career cut short by her untimely death from cancer at age 54 in 1995.
EL: As the director of the Nancy Graves Foundation, how do you keep the artist's legacy alive and continue to reach new and upcoming artists?
CH: The work itself is so compelling and seems to speak to issues being explored by artists today. Data Mining, research, interdiscliplinarity, complexity, technology, science, layered and compressed information sources, visual re presentation, and combinatory art practices all have a historic precedent in Graves' practice.
Her point of view is not introspective or psychological, instead she sought to investigate the science and technology of her time from a point of view that she describes as "objective". Yet from this point of view she still developed a highly personal and recognizable style that transcends the many media with which she worked!
A not-for-profit foundation, the Nancy Graves Foundation was established by the artist to give grants to individual artists and to maintain an archive of her life and work and organize exhibitions of her art. I oversee the collection and archive at the foundation, collaborate with scholars and institutions doing research and exhibitions of the artist and administer the Nancy Graves Grant for Visual Artists program. By encouraging a new generation of scholars to consider Graves unique oeuvre, and by reaching out to artists through the grant program we are reinserting Graves back into discussions of late 20th century art and more importantly, discussions of contemporary art.
The Ludwig Forum in Aachen, Germany mounted a retrospective exhibition of her work that closed last February, and from January 29th to March 7th, 2015, the Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery in New York will be presenting an exceptional selection of her sculptures, paintings, drawings, watercolors and films in Chelsea. So the discussions have definitely begun!