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Memphis Flyer Digging Graves

'Excavations in Print' unearths an uneven body of work by a post-modern pioneer.

By Cory Dugan

JULY 27, 1998:  Nancy Graves was undoubtedly a signal artist for the post-modern era. With seminal installations such as Camels (1968), Fossils (1969), and Calipers (1970), Graves veered into relatively uncharted territory, offering the literal as a form of abstraction, finding a place for metaphor in the cold vocabulary of minimalism. When she returned to painting in 1971, she was nearly a decade ahead of the art-world curve, appropriating and overlapping imagery long before it became a cliché.

The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art is the last stop on a two-and-a-half-year tour for the exhibition “Nancy Graves: Excavations in Print,” which explores the artist’s fairly extensive work in the realm of printmaking. Despite the fact that the exhibit was actually organized prior to Graves’ premature death, it reads like a belated, celebratory wake – full of bright colors and bold images and often (according to the catalog, Graves hated this next adjective) playful compositions.

I, for one, don’t feel like lifting a happy glass to Ms. Graves’ memory on leaving this exhibit. I am saddened. Saddened that she died before her time, yes, but also saddened that her art ended before she could redeem it from the depths to which it had fallen. “Excavations in Print” is the documentary of a gradual slide from stimulating intellectual adventure to wretched decorative excess.

Graves’ return to painting and two-dimensional art after the success of her groundbreaking installations was a retreat, one from which her work never recovered. If her paintings were precursors to the Polkes and Salles and Schnabels yet to come, we know now that was a shallow and flimsy honor.

Even though the Brooks’ exhibit is edited from the original and is somewhat chronologically challenged in its installation, “Excavations” begins with Graves’ initial lithographs – appropriated from NASA maps of the moon and rendered as pointillist abstractions. These are hardly riveting images, little more than pseudo-scientific patterns; their value and their appeal lie in the still-extant but adulterated ties to conceptual process. Graves made no pretense about her source material; pieces are titled for their sources – Julius Caesar Quadrangle of the Moon, Montes Apennius Region of the Moon, etc.

After a five-year gap, wherein the only print images were a couple of predictable abstractions commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, Graves returned with a suite of etchings called the “Synecdoche Series,” a much-simplified reworking of the moon-map series. These are captivating pieces, crude lines and scrawls, bold and certain and sketchbook-honest. If Graves’ draftsmanship is rarely in question, it is rarely – if ever – so superb as in these works.

From the height, the gradual fall.

The monoprints that followed in the early ’80s, of which the Brooks’ exhibit shows only a few, are still strong – dense and painterly, with touches of Cy Twombley and Miro and Paleolithic cave paintings – but begin to show signs of overwork. In the silkscreened “Simca Series” of 1984-85, Graves began to incorporate representational imagery (other than references to her own sculpture), employing Roman and Byzantine motifs, as well as botanical and zoological drawings, amid layered marks which became more stylized than spontaneous. The works are handsome and not quite frivolous, not yet clichés, but they forewarn of the next stage – wherein Graves began to take things too far, to make the astounding quantum leap from a pre-civilized interpretation of modernism to a post-modern bastardization of rococo.

Nancy Graves was unfortunately prolific in the last decade of her life, producing a plethora of increasingly pretentious and decorative images. Titles such as The Clash of Cultures and Hercules, Eve, and the Parting of Night and Day are just hints of the overwrought affectations that linger and lurk in this garish pastiche. Any time an artist quotes Michelangelo, ukiyo-e, Pompeiian mosaics, and Egyptian tomb relief, it is advisable for the viewer to step outside and breathe deeply of fresh air.

In an adjacent gallery, the Brooks offers more of Graves’ work – paintings, more prints, and (phew!) late sculpture from their own and the Fogelman collection – along with a few works by her contemporaries. It’s a nice curatorial touch, putting a hometown spin on a canned exhibit and putting the work into some semblance of a historical context (although I think Graves in some ways had more in common with the next generation of artists than with her own).

Nancy Graves entered the ranks of “major artists” at the young age of 28, when her handmade camels set the art world on its ear – in much the same manner as Damien Hirst’s actual (albeit bisected) cows did roughly 28 years later. If her later work does not add to that reputation, it likewise doesn’t detract. “Excavations in Print” is a valuable (if misguided) exhibition, an art-historical document, the linear (albeit backwards in this writer’s opinion) movement of an artist’s style and interest over three decades.

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