By Harry J. Weil
January 15, 2016
"Ghost Ship," a 2016 sculpture by Nancy Azara, is on view at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site.
The scrolls, collages, and works on handmade paper as well as sculpture in Nancy Azara's exhibition Tuscan Spring, are part of an ongoing series begun during the artist's residence in 2013 in Greve, Italy. The centerpiece are a series of collaged mylar scrolls - several over seven feet in height that evoke what Azara has described as "a tree/spine relationship with the body as source for spirit." On each, the central image - the "vertebrae" - are an outline of a domestic New York rhododendron plant that is painted, duplicated and stacked like a totem. The use of Mylar lends itself to an ethereal quality, and acts, as she explains, as a skin that records her "journey through life," a shell behind which dwells a "luminescent spirit."
In one such scroll, Red Hand with Four Panels, the artist traces and paints her hand in red. It is a symbol of her presence that is much akin to prehistoric hand prints found in cave art across the globe. We don't know much about why our early ancestors left behind such markings (which still exists among several cultures), but we do know is that these people depended much more upon the natural world for sustenance than we do today. Their lives may be shrouded in mystery, but their hand prints marked that the caves were important for their survival - as places for shelter, noting time and presence for community gathering, and ritual practices. The presence of Azara's hand does much the same. With her hand - which rubs, traces, and carves the leaves - she releases and relinquishes herself to the leaves, their presence, and their spirit. Her interest in the natural world is as both a source of unending beauty and brilliance, and also of violence, dis-junction, and disorder. In this exhibit, she juxtaposes one with the other in an attempt for understanding of what we experience as humans. This is demonstrated by how she has painted and collaged the rhododendron and other leaf images, and then ripped some of them, slashed and torn them, reversed them on Mylar, and erratically rubbed them with images from her woodcuts of leaves and spine shapes.
Azara's near obsession with leaves - both as objects of beauty and objects steeped in metaphor - is not for the sake of preservation as a naturalist would for scientific study, but rather to record the energy that resonates within them. This is a holistic energy that is found in all living things. There is a connection here to the transcendentalists of the 19th century, who similarly sought to give voice and form to the natural world beyond hypothesis and theories. Ralph Waldo Emerson said as much when he wrote that in the wilderness he finds something "more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature. [. . .] Nature always wears the colors of the spirit." Azara's spirit is alive in a palate of brilliant blues, reds, and whites, revealing the rolling hills and tranquility of the Tuscan countryside here in New York.