On the occasion of her first solo exhibition at Betty Cuningham Gallery, Dustup (September 6 – October 6, 2012), Nancy Davidson sat down with Kate Gilmore to discuss her sculpture and video, taking over spaces, bulbous parts, color!, the Wild West, and unruly women.
Kate Gilmore (Rail): I thought talking about how I first fell in love with your work would be a good place to start. I’ve known your work for a long time, but I didn’t really get a maximal experience of it until I saw “Double Exposure” in Fantasy Underfoot, the 47th Corcoran Biennial at the Corcoran Museum in Washington, D.C., in 2003. I walked in and saw this massive blowup structure taking over the entire architecture of the museum. I knew of the piece but you don’t really know a piece until you see it in a place like that. I thought, “Badass—awesome!” It was an unapologetic female sculpture, and in such massive terms. I fell in love with the scale of the piece, the color of the piece, the sexuality of the piece, and the politics of the piece. I would particularly love to hear about the conversation between the sculpture and the space in which it was installed.
Nancy Davidson: “Double Exposure” was commissioned specifically for the Beaux Arts atrium space in which Ronald Bladen had installed the giant X for the ’67 exhibition Scale as Content. I had seen photographs of that exhibition and the curator, Jonathan Binstock suggested I consider making a work for that atrium. I immediately thought of putting a giant female form in that space, which would be both enormous in its scale and aggressive in its unruliness. It is enormous: 20 by 20 by 36 feet.
A red double-sphere form that can be viewed both from above and below, it was suspended by a blue rope in the middle of this elegant space, swaying gently, almost as if breathing. It gave me deep pleasure to see it in that space and think about the Ronald Bladen on one side of the atrium and Tony Smith on the other. From 1967 to 2003. In a little over 30 years you could have a piece that represents sculpture in all of its minimal-maximalness with content that was completely unacknowledged in the late ’60s. I gained an understanding and perspective of the body as a primary form through feminism.
Rail: What’s interesting is when I walked into the Corcoran I started to laugh. I laughed because it was funny, immediately funny, this kind of big red bulbous thing taking over this very traditional space. It went so against what we’re supposed to see in that space. I laughed because I was uncomfortable and I could see that other people were uncomfortable. Humor is such a big part of the language of your work. Could you talk a little about this?
Davidson: First of all, there is this transitory pleasure in looking at “Double Exposure.” The work is engaged with spectatorship and the interaction, reaction, and attention to an implied social structure that sets up an often irrepressible release of laughter. You’re complicit in this seduction: you laugh at the enormous breasts, the big butt, and suddenly it’s like, “Oh my God, what am I laughing at, why is this sexual thing making me so uncomfortable?” There’s a manipulation in this. There’s also my own ambivalence: I embrace being a woman but also deal with the social structure of our culture and the various ways in which women are portrayed and expected to be. I’m interested in the subversive potential of humor. It catches you from behind: “What am I laughing at? Why am I finding this pleasurable? Is this offensive?”
Rail: But there’s such darkness that underlies that humor.
Davidson: Much humor is also involved with narrative. In the late ’80s and the early ’90s there was an increase in the popularity of female comedians. They discussed their own lives and experiences like male comedians did. There was an attitude of anything goes. Anything is possible with humor, so they didn’t back away from transgressive or unruly aspects of their personalities. They were women using every aspect of their physical being and their interactions with people and putting it out there. There is a strength in using one’s own experiences and body, particularly when taking on the role of the fool—not a traditional position for women. Contrary to laughing at women in, say, the ’60s or ’70s, the complicity of women laughing at women was not an acceptable thing to do without making women feel uncomfortable or humiliated about what was being laughed at.
Rail: So, are women laughing at your women?
Davidson: Yes, I see women laughing at the hybrid bodies that I’ve constructed. It’s a knowing laughter enjoyed through sexuality, humor, aggressiveness, and excess. That excess is a polymorphous humor that just spreads. Body humor is about women, about men, about babies, animals. If you enjoy it you have to know that you’re implicated. Laughter is uncontrollable and unruly.
Rail: You talk about the unruly female quite a bit. Could you talk about how this becomes a social critique?
Davidson: Yes, it’s related to how I also use the word carnivalesque, which I understand as a state of social critique. Sometimes it prescribes a space where all kinds of things can happen. Festivals in the late Middle Ages saw inversions of authority: men dressing up as women, women dressing up as men, people mooning each other. Mikhail Bakhtin coined the term carnivalesque to describe a mode in which assumptions about power are reversed. There are vestigial aspects of this today in celebrations of Halloween, Carnival, demonstrations, and parades. In Carnivals in Germany and Switzerland you will see people wearing big masks, animal/people heads, hybrid bodies, a baker’s hat with horns on a cow’s head. That kind of play is the open space for critique outside of social order. I believe contemporary art carries some of the task of the unruly social space. My work can be thought of as a kind of play, sculpture, overblown, formal, with references to material and popular culture.
Rail: Let’s talk a bit more about how popular culture comes into play in your work.
Davidson: Growing up in the ’50s I was very much aware of popular figures like Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. When I work with one of these popular figures as an inspiration, media, visual attributes, and poses transform a person like Mae West into a trope. In my piece “Maybe” I am trading on the audience’s knowledge of Mae West to some extent, so that the work steps forward toward the audience with its back-loaded references. I want my work to make a comment. I want it to be desirable. I want my work to be a part of the active social space of spectacle.
What is the meaning of signs in our contemporary culture? Why use a particular kind of fabric that stretches tight over an inflatable that looks like flesh? These are immediate signifiers to people: “Oh, I know what that means!” So then they step forward a little bit more. They open up to the pleasures of the unstable meaning. It’s both a social critique and celebration. I’m not separate from this culture; I’m not separate from the pleasures that I put out there and make fun of, make light of, or play with. That’s all part of who I am as well as where I am.
Rail: It’s interesting that you talk about how you want things to be desirable, but you also want to go against that. Many people reference the grotesque when discussing your work. I would be interested to hear you talk about the relationship between the desire to be desired and the grotesque.
Davidson: One time when I was making a piece, I put something on it and something else fell off of it. I looked at it and thought, “It looks like it’s a striptease. It’s losing its clothes or something.” Then I thought, “Oh, oh, wait a minute.”
When immersed in a topsy-turvy perspective, desire and repulsion often become intertwined. Just as air-brushed beauty can become grotesque, a certain beauty can often be noticed and appreciated in the grotesque. That’s the transgressive aspect of the work, the attempt to present visual aspects of these extremes simultaneously.
Rail: I do think of the Corcoran piece as a kind of stripper. I mean, she’s hanging out there for people to see, and people can just, like, put some dollars in her ropes.
Davidson: I’ve seen children just run screaming, playing underneath that piece. Children are so directly attached to play and to their physical relationship to objects. I wanted that piece to be undeniable in its physicality.
Rail: I think we should talk about color and materials as this holds so much content in your work.
Davidson: Eva Hesse’s work is important to me now and always. Her materials were so unlike other artists’ of her time. She used soft materials related to aspects of the body. There are great photographs of her holding some of her sculptures. It looks like she had a relationship with them, a tenderness to them that I had not seen in other photos of artists and their work. She used materials like rubber, latex, and nets, and she used systems that started out as a grid and ended in chaos. In the early ’70s I was very much taken with the implications of her work. At the time my work was black-and-white. After working for four years in black and white, I decided that I wanted to work with color. The work was still very abstract, but one day I picked up colored paint sticks and it changed the forms of my work. I began looking at Balinese dance and movement. Fast forward to 1992. I had an idea about weather balloons. I wanted to take up a good deal of space with a material that was lightweight, so I could move the work around myself. That’s something about my work; it’s always been big. I sent for a weather balloon. It was about five feet in diameter. Every one of my pieces begins as a sphere. They’re latex, and they have this great nozzle where you put the air in. I blew it up, took a rope, and tied it off at the neck. I squeezed it into a clothing rack, so the clothing rack held it in the middle and it just hung there. I looked at it and I thought, “This is really funny. This is really nasty. This is really sexy. This is a body; this is flesh; this is enormous, I want to make work like this.” And that’s where my work with inflatables started. When I researched the balloons, I realized I could get them in colors. I used the color as a way to draw attention to the work, to make it more noticeable.
Rail: Why do you want to be noticed? Why do you want to take over an entire space?
Davidson: I think that really has to do with occupying a space that had been occupied differently. Early on I was interested in Donald Judd’s stack pieces and his use of auto-body materials and colors. I have been interested in serial, multiple forms that create a structure, and the minimal sculptures that took up an enormous amount of space. So I wanted to be part of that dialogue, with sculpture that is both enormous and materially very lightweight. There’s more to it than its weight because my large pieces are often filled with air. There is a considerable dialogue around the weightiness of sculpture, its seriousness and its structural integrity. I see my work as part of that dialogue. Being part of a serious dialogue by adding humor challenges the status quo and pomposity.
Rail: Can we talk a little more about the deadly seriousness?
Davidson: I want to call the attention of the viewer to the possibilities of a social order where the pleasures and playfulness and sexuality of women is respected and admired. I don’t want it to be thought of as a utopian——
Rail: No, it’s not utopian.
Davidson: Yeah. [Laughs.] I want my work acknowledged as taking a critical position, at the same time being completely playful and pleasurable.
Rail: That’s a very stereotypical female condition.
Davidson: What about Jeff Koons?
Rail: Right, no, that’s true, that’s true.
Davidson: What about Mike Kelly who wanted to play with children’s things, and at the same time take a very critical position? I’m saying the difference is that I’m proposing a criticality in the face of celebration. I’m proposing difference as a way of celebrating a more open and human structure without privileging dominance by one gender or the other.
Rail: Dominance can be a larger conversation too. Those who are on the in, and those who are on the out, right?
Davidson: I think it’s more than that. I think it can take a position that moves out into the world. Can it go out in a park? Can it go to a festival? Can it move around? Can people understand it? Do people have to be knowledgeable about abstraction to understand it? Maybe not. Not if it addresses concerns in the world that step outside a certain art world structure and starts to address issues that are beyond that. I want to do that with “Dustup.” As a child in the ’50s, I was inspired by the cowgirl and her can-do spirit. When researching the cowgirl with a grant from Creative Capital, I realized as a child I had been taken in by this characterization of a cowgirl. It was important to me because it presented a woman who was outside of the cultural structure. She was unruly, she was beyond the rules. When I went out west and started looking at rodeos, I realized that the rodeo cowgirl maintained her own place outside the structure of society. She did things that were unacceptable. That character, that trope, was fascinating to me because it worked with all of the ideas I had about popular characters, tropes, and stereotypes, but a very real American icon, a Western icon. There are aspects of it that are very inspirational and make people want to do things and create things in their lives. That’s the kind of transgressive complexity, self-motivated dominance I’m attracted to in popular culture.
Rail: When I look at this new body of work at Betty’s, I think about Annie Get Your Gun. You know [sings], “Anything you can do, I can do better.” For those who aren’t Broadway-crazy like myself, it’s about a girl who’s trying to do everything that this boy is doing. That is, on a larger scale, the conversation behind much of the work that you make. You participate within your own terms, but also take the rules that exist and force your own systems onto them. This cowgirl, this Annie Get Your Gun character, enters this beautiful Chelsea gallery.
You’re more known for sculpture and these inflatables, but you’ve also been making videos for the past few years, and there will be a video in the show. I think we should talk about that transition, how has video entered your life.
Davidson: Right. Well, my first work with video was in 1999. I’d been looking at the inflatables in my studio, how they blow up and they look wonderful and full, and then they lose air and deflate.
Rail: They perform.
Davidson: They do perform, and then they die, or they become this shriveled thing on the floor. It’s not something you see in my work because when I do the pieces, they’re always fully inflated, they’re at their most bulbous selves and when they start deflating then they have to be quickly inflated again.
The first video I made in ’99 was called “Breathless.” The subject was a pink balloon. It blew up and it deflated and it bounced around. I worked with a filmmaker, Ken Kobland, and sound artist Judith Dunbar. She had recorded sounds of balloons inflating and deflating, making really squeaky sounds. I was fascinated with the fixing of time and editing. After that I bought a little video camera and it accompanied me when I went places. I did a short video of the Corcoran piece in ’03. Then in ’05 when I was out west doing research at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Museum in Fort Worth, the women working there said to me, “You should go next door and see the Women’s Professional Rodeo.” I’ve never been to a rodeo and I didn’t know what to expect. The next day I went and saw a woman named Jan Youren. It was her last ride after 47 years of riding bucking broncos. I had my camera with me so I captured her doing this ride; it was fascinating to me on many levels. I couldn’t believe someone who was 62 years old would be riding and falling because you always fall off the horse at the rodeo. It became an obsession for me. I had to find out who were these rodeo cowgirls, what was their history. I started traveling to all kinds of rodeos, both men and women and I found out many things about rodeo. The rodeos for the women were in poorly-lit spaces and the money that they won was a fraction of what the male rodeo-riders won. After a year and a half of videotaping different rodeos I began working on a video. I was fascinated with the space of the rodeo, the rink, the ritual, and reenactment. When I reviewed the clips I found the men’s bull riding of more interest to me visually. The bulls were more outrageous, the arena had better lighting. The videos of the women riders were almost unusable due to the poor lighting in the arenas they performed in. I began to make “All Stories Are True,” the video in the current show. It’s about the eight-second ride. Every rider comes out, spins around, holds on for as long as he can, and then flies off. If he’s lucky not to get trampled by the bull, he runs off and comes back for the next ride. Their ritual reminded me of the myth of Icarus. I cut the video very tightly to just have these aspects of the ride, the spinning, the flying, the falling in repetition. I think about it as extreme gender display. My show has both the inflatable “cowgirl sculptures” suspended in a dust ball dustup, and a video of male cowboys in another room.
Rail: When I was watching the video, I was really taken with the flashbulbs. How do you see that aspect of the video in relation to the show and to the sculpture, but also in relation to the way you’ve been dealing with pop culture in your other works?
Davidson: When I looked at the tapes, there were many light flashes, because people were photographing the riders. Rodeo is an extreme spectacle and every aspect is part of its ritual. The sound content is as important as the visuals. It begins with a droning sound and the flashbulb sounds, then slowly the noise of the crowd and the AM-radio hard rock takes over. It represents the way we look at athletes and physical prowess and a kind of idealism that’s anything but ideal. I was completely unfamiliar with rodeo yet within that space all the tropes that I’ve ever thought about in relationship to popular culture are there. Video provides a time-space dimension that sculpture delivers in a different way. After finishing “All Stories Are True,” I made a short piece using the cowgirl sculptures as puppets. It’s titled “I’ve Been Everywhere.” It is a video about cowgirl puppets coming to life. I think about my pieces as if they were strange beings, these playful, destructive, childlike beings. “Dustup” was inspired by classic comic dustball images, an epic battle, all tossed up together in the air, legs everywhere, bulbous form everywhere, leather hanging everywhere.
Rail: Leather? [Laughs.]
Davidson: Yes, there’s leather and it is a true story.