In 1969 the late Nancy Graves took her first steps into the art world, debuting as the youngest artist, and only the fifth woman to receive a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art. With her life-sized, realistic-looking camel sculptures, it seemed Graves would cement her place in the world of naturalism. Her current exhibition, “After Image,” features paintings from 1982 through 1989, and are a far cry from the realistic sculptures that first put her on the art world map.
Those who have followed Graves' career are likely familiar with her more abstract work, which incorporates brightly colored oil paint on white backgrounds, and straddles the line between surrealism and abstract expressionism. What distinguishes the eight paintings here is the fact that they are all done on a black background. While that may not sound too remarkable, the dark background adds a dramatic depth of field. Many incorporate sculptural elements, with large metal abstract forms emerging like brush-strokes leaping off the canvas. They also extend the canvas by casting swirling shadows on the wall. Colorful lines and patterns emerge in various levels of impasto, which float in the dark background as if they are hanging in space. The four paintings in the front gallery allow more negative space. The black backgrounds are not just a setting for the lines that they contain. Graves uses different shades of black with varied finishes to give the background an atmospheric quality.
A separate room towards the back of the gallery houses four additional paintings. Colorful lines and patterns overwhelm the canvases like psychedelic sea-scapes (appropriate, given that they are inspired by seafloor topography). While these paintings initially seem like a chaotic mass of neon, codified within the swirling lines are hidden figurative elements. A face peers out from the coral-like shapes, and animals appear hidden in the foliage-like patterns. The longer you look, the more you will be rewarded by Grave’s skill of composition and whimsical design.
Nancy Graves, "Everyone Scurries," 1989, oil on canvas with gold leaf and anodized aluminum element, 46 x 40 x 17"