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Janet Koplos

Art in America   

June 2000

Nancy Azara at Donahue/Sosinski Gallery

Nancy Azara has developed a signature vocabulary of materials (carved wood, paper), colors (red, black, silver, gold), and forms (human, tree, and in-betweens), which she deployed in a variety of complex and simple sculptural formats in her recent exhibition.


Heart Wall, the largest work and also the title piece of the show, was a 24-foot-wide bilaterally symmetrical installation of seven groups of wooden vertical elements standing or leaning against the gallery's longest wall. There were thick boards with rectangular recesses that form a simple ladder in relief, slabs carved into leaf or shield shapes, and others painted or carved with spirals or handprints. On two panels, the cropped and inverted crotch of a real tree recalled Brancusi's Torso of a Young Man (1924). At the center of Heart Wall, two slender tree trunks, painted a brilliant red, twined together anthropomorphically. Most of the parts have an overall pattern of feathery gouge marks that activate the surface and demonstrate the soft receptiveness of the wood. As usual, Azara coats the raw material with pigment and/or metallic leaf so that its natural grain and color are concealed. The result is a certain tension-as if the wood wants to burst out of this jacket-that heightens the expressionism of the carving and coloring. 


Another major piece was Passages, a sequence of carved and painted wood panels 25 inches tall that are joined into an accordian-fold book 18 feet long when open. It was presented on a long, narrow wooden table at a height convenient for reading the poems by Judith Barrington that occupy six panels, or examining details of such emblems as hands, hair, feet, maple or sycamore leaves, diverging branches, bones, etc. The poems-simple, direct and often piercingly emotional-are so thoroughly matched to the imagery that it's impossible to guess which came first.

The primitive quality of Azara's carving is most affecting in these smaller formats, although she never abandons human scale (she enlarges by repetition, not magnification). The smallness and simplicity are most trenchant in Changes, a grid arrangement of 16 panels, all but one of them measuring 12 inches square. Given the modest size, Azara must reduce and simplify beyond the usual. There's a red square with three hands of different sizes that suggests a family. There's a square with three crescents, and another with three feathers (or cypresses?), another with a hollowed-out oval and two others marked with seven slender vertical lines, gouged into the wood in one instance and protruding in the other. Changes conveys Azara's graphic strengths.


The exhibition also included eight individual works in her usual vocabulary, and a gold-leafed bronze piece in an edition of two. Given the repetition that permeates Azara's work, it is perhaps easiest to think of it all as verse and refrain.

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