April 25, 2001
In 1971 feminist art critic Lucy Lippard described female characteristics in art as "often sensuously tactile and often repetitive to the point of obsession." She noted a "preponderance of circular forms" as well as an indescribable "looseness and flexibility of handling," among other attributes. While there remains no real agreement on what a definition of feminist art should be, Lippard's catalogue of characteristics comes to mind when considering the carved sculpture of Nancy Azara. A leader of the contemporary feminist art movement, Azara's most recent work is now on display at the University of Vermont's Colburn Gallery.
Beyond Lippard's preliminary notions of a feminist aesthetic, there is nothing gender-specific about what Azara presents in these six pieces. Her iconography includes spirals, but they are universal. The scalloped, tactile rhythms of Azara's wood carving are closely related to Gaugin's carvings and woodcuts than to the more domestic sources of feminist art examined by Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, Faith Ringgold, and others. And Azara's references to the spiritual seem more personal than dogmatic
Sticks with Green has four severed tree limbs mounted on flat carved panels. As in all of Azara's work in this show, gold leaf is used in abundance, and she brightens it using the medieval trick of layering the gold leaf over red paint. A dark green area at the top of the image gives Sticks with Green an element of chromatic opposition- dark and ominous behind the limbs, which have been layered with pale aluminum leaf.
Nancy Azara, Changes 2005
"Jacket with Gold" has two bent limbs affixed to the front of two slightly tapered planks, giving the form a "jacket" But the limbs also frame a mandala-shaped negative space, and Azara has carved and painted spirals onto the limbs. Again, red and gold dominate the eye.
A more direct reference to spiritual power appears in Hand Altar. The 6-by-4-by-3-foot piece is painted wood, gold leaf and encaustic. Groupings of carved-out hand prints ascend on the face of the altar, from eight prints in the dark lower reaches near the floor, to four prints at the midsection above a series of spirals, to two flanking a group of vertical grooves and a pair of long sticks, which form the central axis of the piece. Azara's Hand Altar describes a process of evolution or passage and, like all altars, implies the possibility of ritual.
Changes demonstrates Azara's virtuosity as a carver and the flexibility of her iconography of hands, spirals, and grooves. Forty-four 12-inch carved squares have been arranged into a 4-by-11-foot grid that seems to symbolically describe the passage of life from birth to death. As read from left to right and top to bottom, the final square of the grid is a dark green square with sprigs of olive carved onto it. Olive branches are a complicated symbol, going beyond the well-known representation of peace. They were associated with the wisdom of Athena, and the justice of her wisdom, by the ancient Greeks.
Changes works formally well. Darker and lighter panels are strategically arranged to maintain movement. hues are varied: Near the lower corner is a scarlet panel, which contrasts with the more crimson red used everywhere else, that pulls the eye toward the olivine denouement. Textures, from choppy bas relief to smooth ponds of encaustic, are likewise organized with overall movement in mind. These also serve to transition the narrative quality in the works.
Azara's artwork seems to transcend the cluttered art history of the last third of the 20th century. While she helped shape, and was shaped by, the often divisive currents of the feminist art movement 30 years ago, Azara not been standing still since. The equity called for by the civil-rights movement of that era often led to more radical visions of separatism, but in the long term, Azara seems to have avoided that trap. Her work, therefore, has a wider appeal.