By Lilly Wei
"Spirit Taking Form, She Said"
Essay for the exhibition Dawn/Light: Sculpture and Collages
Nancy Azara's distinctive wood sculptures are hand-made, touched and re-touched as she shapes her work into existence, carving directly, ardently into the material, coating it with encaustic and color, her practice both pragmatic and ritualized. A feminist and spiritualist whose production is a testament to memories and desires, to landscapes of the mind and soul with reference to nature and the architectural, Azara seems to transfer her own passionate convictions, her own breath of life into her constructs like a latter-day Pygmalion. The sculptures vary in scale from the modest to the more monumental and are usually reliefs meant to be viewed frontally, consisting of multiple components, their lexicon of often repeated images - leaves, hands, spirals, hearts and so forth - conjuring a timeless, pictographic language that is both intensely personal and universal. They also suggest a collection of beloved, even fetishized objects that are both sophisticated and crude, contemporary and archaic, excerpted from a cross-cultural folk tradition that contributes to their mystical, hybridized allure.
Nancy Azara, Altar for Nunzia 1913-2004 (2008)
Azara is an assured colorist and her sculptures are vivid; reds, roses and purples– her favorite hues–dominate her palette, balanced by the sheen of gold, silver, and in her most recent work, aluminum leaf. The rich encaustic of the surfaces seems burnished to a soft glow and have the look of things that have been intently looked at, visually and literally caressed. Two of the larger works in the exhibition are Leaf Altar for Nunzia 1913-2004 (2008) and Dawn/Light (2009), scaled to the human but enhanced. Each resembles an altarpiece of sorts and both display her signature color scheme of silver with a few wine red leaves and metallic rose whorls. They function, in some ways, as a pair. The former is a memorial to her mother, its luminous surface incised with a pattern of leaves pointing heliotropically upward, as if searching for the light. A ledge is attached across it for offerings, perhaps, and placed before it are three tree trunks that double as stools, as if her mother is also still offering sustenance and love to her children - and they to her.
The latter is a memorial to herself, marking a shift from one stage of life into another. Ten feet high, it is both steel and portal, its imagery of leaves, rippled lines of stylized water, spiraled ovals and so forth are all symbols of flux and metamorphoses, topped by a series of signs that invokes ancient writing or a secret code. The composition is both representational and notational, the surface mostly monochromatic, a lovely indeterminate color that is more light than color, as if the solid object were in the process of dissolution, its mode more interrogatory, a proposal rather than a statement. Azara said that gold leaf had figured prominently in her work for many years in monumental installations such as the stunning Maxi's Wall (2006) and Heart Wall (1999), shown recently in New York, both important pieces in her oeuvre, cousins at a remove to those of James Lee Byars. These aluminum leaf sculptures are the next phase of that, quieter, softer for the time being, heralding a period of reflection and re-assessment.
Like Queen of Spades (2009), another vertical work, its surface interrupted by a cascade of pink that suggests the folds of a gown and an attachment that mimics the ruff worn by queens of old, this abstract, ambiguous Queen, as part of the Tart deck, as surrogate for the artist, has something to say about instinct, chance and destiny.