Nancy Graves: From Camels to Moonscapes

By NGC Magazine Staff on March 20, 2017


Nancy Graves, installation view of Camel VI, Camel VII and Camel VIII, 1968–1969, wood, steel, burlap, polyurethane, animal skin, wax, oil paint, 228.6 x 365.8 x 121.9 cm (approx.). NGC. © Estate of Nancy Graves / SODRAC, Montreal / VAGA, New York (2017)

Years ago, when the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) was located in the former Lorne Building at 90 Elgin Street in Ottawa, one of its most popular “storefront” draws was a display of Nancy GravesCamel VI, Camel VII and Camel VIII (1968–1969). Now on view once again, this trio of life-sized camel sculptures is enthralling audiences in an installation at the NGC.

Presented in contemporary gallery B207, Camel VI, Camel VII and Camel VIII are accompanied by ten works on paper by Graves. These dazzling pointillist-style prints are drawn from her series, Lithographs based on Geologic Maps of Lunar Orbiter and Apollo Landing Sites (1972). The experience also includes Graves’ mesmerizing film Izy Boukir (1971), which enhances the experience by filling the gallery space with the sounds of camels grunting and birds chirping.


Nancy Graves, installation view of Camel VI, Camel VII and Camel VIII, 1968–1969, wood, steel, burlap, polyurethane, animal skin, wax, oil paint, 228.6 x 365.8 x 121.9 cm (approx.). NGC. © Estate of Nancy Graves / SODRAC, Montreal / VAGA, New York (2017)

“Made very early in her career, these three sculptures show something of Graves’ lifelong interest in the relationship between art and science,” says Adam Welch, Associate Curator of Canadian Art, who selected the works for exhibition with Anabelle Kienle-Poñka, Associate Curator of European and American Art. “Some critics have curiously likened the qualities of camels to those of Graves herself: resilient and independent, traits necessary as a woman artist working in the late 1960s in New York.” 

Nancy Graves (1940–1995) was born in Massachusetts. Her father worked as an accountant at the local Berkshire Museum, where art was displayed with natural history. He encouraged his daughter’s early interests in art, nature and anthropology — interests which endured for the rest of her life. After graduating from Vassar College with a degree in English Literature, Graves attended Yale University, where she earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in Art, studying alongside Chuck Close, Robert Mangold and Brice Marsden.

Following Yale, she won a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship in 1964, and began studying painting in Paris — where she also married sculptor Richard Serra, whom she had met at Yale (and from whom she would divorce in 1970). Moving on to Florence soon after, she would live a somewhat nomadic life, spending time in countries that included Morocco, Kashmir, India, Egypt, Peru, Australia and Canada. 


Nancy Graves, Fra Mauro Region of the Moon, 1972, colour lithograph on Arches wove paper, 56.9 x 76.3 cm. NGC. © Estate of Nancy Graves / SODRAC, Montreal / VAGA, New York (2017)

Graves was a prolific artist, and explored a broad range of disciplines, including painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture and film. She first made her mark, however, with her lifelike camel sculptures, composed of materials such as burlap, polyurethane, fibreglass, animal hide and wax, over steel-and-wood armatures.

Although her camels evoked traditional displays in natural history museums, Graves’ influences were much broader. “In both the camel and fossil sculptures,” she once said, “I soon found my own way of working, which, while it departed from taxidermy, still alluded to it. I envisioned the group of camels as a study of motion — more specifically, motion arrested. Muybridge was certainly an influence, as were Oldenburg’s soft forms. After making numerous studies, I began to create the camel forms out of whatever materials were available to me in Florence."

From her camel sculptures, Graves later began producing camel bones and skeletons made of wax, marble dust and acrylic. She either posed these on plinths, hung them from the ceiling, recombined them to make columns, or spread them across the floor, inviting viewers to interact with these reconstructions in unexpected ways.



Nancy Graves, installation view of Camel VI, Camel VII and Camel VIII, 1968–1969, wood, steel, burlap, polyurethane, animal skin, wax, oil paint, 228.6 x 365.8 x 121.9 cm (approx.). NGC. © Estate of Nancy Graves / SODRAC, Montreal / VAGA, New York (2017)

In the early 1970s, Graves made five films. Two of them — Goulimine (1970) and Izy Boukir, both in the national collection — recorded the movement of camels in Morocco, reinforcing her interest in Eadweard Muybridge and his photographic studies of motion.

When asked why she had made camels such an integral part of her oeuvre, Graves answered, “Why camels? Because camels shouldn't exist. They have flesh on their hoofs, four stomachs, a dislocated jaw. Yet with all of the illogical form the camel still functions. And though they may be amusing, they are still wonderful to watch.”

During this same period, Graves also created a series of unusual “aerial landscapes,” including the Moon-inspired lithographs on view at the NGC. Throughout the 1960s, scientific advances not only made it possible to view the surface of the Moon, but also to see Earth from orbiting satellites, and to explore the ocean floor. As a science-lover, Graves was captivated by these images and new mapping technologies, and would soon incorporate them into her artistic practice.


Nancy Graves, Riphaeus Mountains Region of the Moon, 1972, colour lithograph on Arches wove paper, 57.1 x 76.3 cm. NGC. © Estate of Nancy Graves / SODRAC, Montreal / VAGA, New York (2017)

“Made a few years after the camels, these lunar landscapes look to me suspiciously like the Sahara Desert Graves explores in her film Izy Boukir,” says Welch. “I like seeing the film footage and the topographic prints in the same gallery — they are both otherworldly and quite beautiful. Much of Graves’ work asks viewers to imagine other creatures, times and places.”

In works on view at the NGC, Graves has layered dots of bright colour to create highly abstract maps of the lunar surface. Although it is possible to imagine the Moon’s peaks, impact craters and “seas,” the artist’s reinterpretation has resulted in works that are at once delicate and powerful.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Graves continued to alternate between sculpture and other forms. She worked in cast bronze, and towards the end of her life, was experimenting with blown glass and the casting of fibre-optic glass filaments. She died of ovarian cancer in 1995 in New York City. “We are born and we die,” she once said. “By understanding our interrelatedness to the chain gang of life, meaning comes.” 

Camel VI, Camel VII, Camel VIII, Lithographs based on Geologic Maps of Lunar Orbiter and Apollo Landing Sites, and Izy Boukir by Nancy Graves are currently on view in Upper Contemporary Gallery B207 at the NGC.


By NGC Magazine Staff| March 20, 2017
Categories:  Exhibitions

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