“Sweet Pea,” a 2016 sculpture by Nancy Azara is on view at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site.
What is it about trees that makes them such a prevalent metaphor, and across so many genres? There’s the Tree of Life motif that’s found in creation myths the world over; there are the family trees by which we construct and conceive of our own histories; The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, anyone?
One haunting iteration of the tree as metaphor occurs in Mary Oliver’s poem, In Blackwater Woods: “Look, the trees/are turning/their own bodies/into pillars of/light.”
To picture this image is to picture something akin to what the New York City-based sculptor Nancy Azara has done in “Passage of the Ghost Ship: Trees and Vines,” her exhibition at the Picture Gallery at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish. With white paint and iridescent aluminum gilding, Azara has transformed the once-earthbound bodies of trees and vines into pillars — and tangles, and tendrils, and bundles — of light.
Situated as they are against white walls and on white floors, with pale rays of sunlight streaming in through white translucent shades, the shimmering, textured surfaces of Azara’s trees are ethereal and unrooted, as if free-floating bodies in space. The strongest proof of the pieces’ corporeality — short of reaching out and touching them — is the shadows they cast across the gallery’s walls and floors, creating a visual dialogue between light and dark.
“I think there a few elements of (the exhibition) that lend themselves to the use of shadow,” wrote Meghan Gallagher, the exhibitions coordinator at Saint-Gaudens, in a recent email exchange. “One is the starkness of the color palette Nancy uses in this body of work; it is almost entirely white, and so the interplay of the shadows with the ghostliness of the pieces is quite moving, but also spooky and elegant in a really wonderful way.”
Whereas lighting is often the final step in preparing an art installation, and often aims to minimize shadow, this was not the case in “Passage of the Ghost Ship.” Azara worked with Gallagher to light each piece as it went up, a deliberation that speaks to the pieces’ shadows as “extensions of the pieces themselves,” Gallagher wrote.
In Ghost Ship, the titular and most striking piece in the exhibition, Azara has repurposed a dead wisteria, a plant that twines itself around anything it can find. A tangled mass of its vines hangs, suspended, between two rough-hewn, white-painted pillars of wood. The way the tendrils spill down to the floor, blending into their own intricate shadows, made me think of a moon-colored net trawling the bottom of the sea, or the tentacles of some enormous and convoluted jellyfish. Though the sculpture itself is static, it seems to capture a moment of slow, graceful movement, like that of a ship on which I wouldn’t mind being rocked to sleep.
Less tranquil, and somewhat more abstruse, is the Tuscan Leaves collage series. Azara has arranged leaf tracings, which are either left blank or colored in with white pencil, against the black textured background of a bark rubbing; all of this sits under mylar, a transparent plastic film. Interestingly, each white leaf bears the same minor asymmetries, suggesting they are all traced from the same original leaf. This makes each collage’s singular slap of leaf in red or blue stand out all the more, a vibrant if unpolished oddity amidst the colorless replicas.
To Azara, trees are not only visually pleasing, but also symbolic of the human experience, she said in a phone interview last week. But not just any human’s experience. The way she sees it, a tree has a gender, and that gender is female.
“Women over centuries have worked with trees as representations of the self,” she said. “There’s something about a tree that connects to the self, and especially to women. I just felt that that particular vine and tree was, or is, something that’s much more human-feeling than many other things.”
The way Azara’s feminism manifests in her Saint-Gaudens exhibition is subtle at best, and so it helps to know about her long career in feminist art prior to visiting the space.
She began making art in the late 1960s, when the art world was even more of a boys’ club than it is now. “Fifty years ago, being a woman artist, and a woman sculptor, was kind of rare,” she said. “People didn’t expect that, and a lot of people didn’t like it.”
But she continued to use art to push through the patriarchy. In 1979, she co-founded a school called the New York Feminist Art Institute to train women in the arts, and “to explore whether there is indeed a particular way of seeing the world” that is unique to women, she said. She taught at the school until its closing in 1990.
Color has always been a major part of how Azara expresses her experience of womanhood, she said, noting her particular fondness for bold purples, pinks and reds. But white, which is both the visible absence of color and the amalgam of all colors, is consistent with the themes she has been grappling with lately.
“Once I began listening to the vine and the tree, I began to see something about it that spoke to me. It spoke to me about my life, and going toward the last chapter of my life,” said Azara, who is 77. “And since this show is also about the absence of being, I decided it would be an all-white show. There are touches of color here and there, but by and large I wanted whiteness.”
But even absence — of light, of life and of hue — has its own kind of presence in the exhibition.
Sweet Pea, for example, features a small, delicate tree, which died when some creature ate away all its roots, Azara said. It appears to have been a maple tree, based on what remains of its life: Some wing-shaped seed pods, now brown and desiccated, still cling to the tips of its branches, though only just. They flutter slightly in the gentle wafting of the gallery’s dehumidifier, instilling a sense that even this now-inanimate object, which Azara has fixed between the stages of death and decay, is subject to change over time.
Nancy Azara’s exhibition, “Passage of the Ghost Ship: Trees and Vines,” is up at the Picture Gallery at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish through Sept. 10.