NANCY DAVIDSON with Ashley McNelis
Nancy Davidson’s large-scale, colorful, biomorphic inflatables unapologetically embody and destabilize pop culture tropes through humor, absurdity, and the grotesque. From April 30 – May 29, Lord Ludd in Philadelphia will present a solo exhibition of Davidson’s work, Ridin’ High, which will include sculptures from the nineties and new sculptures that parody themes of power and privilege. Davidson met with Ashley McNelis at her Tribeca studio to discuss her work, as well as Eva Hesse, modern feminism, and doing what you want, when you want.
Ashley McNelis (Rail): You came from Chicago to New York in the late ’70s, right?
Nancy Davidson: Right. I graduated in ’75 from the Art Institute and by ’79, maybe sixty-five people from my class decided to move to New York. I had been teaching for a couple of years at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and was a member of the artist’s space N.A.M.E. Gallery in Chicago. It was a really formative time for me. I was very interested in post-minimal abstraction and basic minimal forms. It was a very important time for me to be in Chicago.
Rail: It’s a great scene still today.
Davidson: Yes. The generation that I was from was really against the Hairy Who, which came before us in the sixties. Now, any time I see work by artists from that group I love it. The content, the inventiveness, the humor. Even now, Chicago Imagist work is rarely seen in New York.
Rail: New York can be provincial in that way. You weren’t always a sculptor. Would you tell me about that transition?
Davidson: For a long time my work was mainly in black and white. Initially, I worked with two-dimensional pieces made of paper and installed directly on the wall. The piece titled T.E.B. was like a drawing that was in the show Abstract Art in Chicago at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 1976. In the early seventies I was interested in a priori structures that allowed my work to unfold in a form that had a very specific logic and structure. The world seemed very confusing and I wanted to present a more unified form. By making rubbings of the patterns of the wood floor in my studio, these works translated the gestures of my body to paper. The surface and structure of the work was formed by my gestures and the irregularities of the floor surface making a record of touch. These were my first pieces that connected large scale, bilateral symmetry, and curved forms as installation works. These combined elements became my focus for years.
In graduate school I was fascinated with two very diverse subjects. The first was scarification and its meaning in relationship to female beauty. The second was images of female power like the abstracted, bilaterally symmetrical woman with her legs spread that was used in many civilizations. At times it was used as a symbol for fertility or they were painted over the posts of Polynesian ritual structures. I did some research because I was interested in scarification, funerary symbolism, female symbols, and ritual. I was interested in a kind of theatrical sense of the feminine, and about masquerade, which was an important part of post-feminist theory.
In the mid-80s I began to feel the need to reach out and communicate more directly with the audience. I wanted my work to move off the wall. Work that was abstract and formal didn’t invite viewers that were not informed about contemporary art, yet I was interested in minimal form. I didn’t want to give up minimal form per se; I just wanted to impose meaning into it. Narrative was not of interest to me but character was […] and then there was humor! I wanted the work to have a sense of humor like me (and be more reflective of my personality in that way).
Rail: When did you begin to use inflatables in your practice?
Davidson: In 1992, when I had just moved into this studio, I wanted to find materials that were really lightweight that would take up a lot of space. One day I wondered what it would be like if I worked with a weather balloon as a form. I sent for one and the minute it came, I blew it up and immediately knew it was the perfect material. Funny, grotesque, huge, erotic, absurd, and attractive, it was like a fleshy body. I tied up its nozzle and squeezed. I had a rolling coat rack that I had used for some pieces so I squeezed the balloon into it. [Laughter.] I thought, oh my god. It was so funny. It was like flesh and I was being kinda mean to it.
Rail: You were testing it.
Davidson: I was testing it! I liked the idea of tying it up a bit with rope to hold onto it. The balloons are so much about bodies. Some people think these are all female bodies but actually everybody has these bodies. Everybody has buttocks, everybody has breasts. The nozzles are crossover elements. They’re all essential to the inflatable and to bodies.
Since the early nineties my work has focused on popular culture as a language. Using stereotypes and tropes creates a path to immediate recognition for the viewer. The humor and language that people share allows them to move toward the work. I’ve found that to be a very strong draw.
Rail: I think it’s wonderful that you started off using pop culture references and concepts that were already in the cultural consciousness. Many artists are afraid to go low-brow or kitsch.
Davidson: Thank you. By engaging with some of the content of popular culture I can subvert meaning by unexpected implications. Humor makes the work unstable. Feelings of ambivalence and discomfort can appear. The carnivalesque aspect of humor is especially unstable. Various people have written about the instability and subversiveness of humor including Mikhail Bakhtin. There are a number of writers who’ve written about burlesque too, like Robert Allen in Horrible Prettiness.
Rail: I see a lot of burlesque in the work.
Davidson: Yes. Early cinema interests me as well. In early cinema as well as burlesque, it’s not necessarily a logical narrative, it’s one visual key after another. My intentions with video are best described in an essay on early cinema by Tom Gunning titled “The Cinema of Attraction.” The idea of creating an image specifically for the viewer to see, and an ability to show images in this way relates to my interest in spectacle, carnival, and other forms of popular culture. In early cinema, short films were shown with other acts in vaudeville without narrative integration. The focus was on what they could show instead of what they could tell. It is all about the cinema’s ability to show something, to “make images seen,” to directly address the spectator.
Rail: Eventually you fully embraced this interest and started to make videos.
Davidson: Yes. I made my first video, Breathless, in 1999 with the help of Ken Kobland who is a terrific filmmaker. In the film, a balloon bounced back and forth, deflating. At some point I grab it with a glove on my hand and then let it go. I was fascinated with the stages of inflation and deflation, the changes in the form of the balloon and its relationship to living skin. Making the video was a way for me to see the inflating, bouncing, and deflation in time that was part of my daily experience with the inflatables.
Right now I’m finishing up a piece about the Gotham Girls Roller Derby. A photographer friend of mine, Sarah van Ouwerkerk, is doing portraits, lenticulars, and other images while I do video. The project’s title, I am not tame, was taken from Jeanette Winterson’s book The Daylight Gate about the history of women who were considered witches in England. For I am not tame, Sarah and I went to Gotham Girls Roller Derby events and practice sessions all over New York City. Now I’m working on finishing the seven-minute video which will loop. I never thought much about how films were made until I started making them. It has to come together; it’s a real wrestling scene.
Rail: Jeanette Winterson is very subversive.
Davidson: Her book Sexing the Cherry was a huge influence to me. The big piece that I did at the Corcoran, Double Exposure, was greatly inspired by her. The lead character in her book, a giantess, had enormous appetites for food, for sex, for dogs, and more. It’s a feminist farce.
Rail: I was surprised that you planned out your early drawings and your films. Your work is very organic and playful.
Davidson: In the 1970s, the world was very chaotic. Women’s lives were flying open. It was a most amazing time. I felt like I needed order. Now it takes me a long time to complete my pieces, much of the work is figuring out how to realize the work in the materials I choose to work with. The other thing about sculpture is that I really like to work full scale and as you can see my studio is not enormous. (Laughter.) We’re among giants.
Rail: Speaking of processes and materials that can be manipulated, let’s talk about Eva Hesse. I really love the work of women from the period of Minimalism and Post-Minimalism. Sculpture was a very rigid, rule-following boy’s club but you were able to work in your own way.
Davidson: I think you’re really onto something. At that moment in time, if you were a sculptor, you worked with heavy, hard, long-lasting materials. Eva Hesse was an amazing artist. It’s so unfortunate that she died so young. Many women artists like Margaret Kilgallen and Ree Morton died young and their work remains unsung. My work has been influenced by Hesse in so many ways. Her use of materials and the nature of the forms she worked with are extremely important to me. She used materials that were not being used for sculpture. The materiality of her work was not about rigidity; her materials—like rubber, latex, nets, and plastics—were soft and her forms referenced the body. There is a fragility built into the materials of her work. I've always related to how she held and played with her materials and works. She also spoke about absurdity and repetition, which are both very important to me.
At that time I was making wall installation drawings out of paper. I was in an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1973. To install my work I arrived with a shopping bag, with the piece rolled up, labeled, and ready to be installed with tape. For me, that was a huge release. It also helped me see that I could actually decide what materials I was going to work with.
Rail: It’s wonderful that a lot of your work comes out of that chaotic period. I wanted to ask you later about how you feel about the situation now, because I think your works are very timeless. A sexuality that asks to be celebrated is still very subversive and relevant.
Davidson: It’s true. I don’t know what it’s like to be in the world because everything changes daily, but you must find it to be incredible. I lived through some very exciting times for women, but now, it’s a difficult and absurd time. It’s almost carnival. Where is the authentic in today’s culture? Everything is put on a pedestal and applauded. That’s what my new work is addressing.
For a number of years I’ve been interested in carnival. Specifically the stilt walking characters in the West Indies celebrations. They are called spirit chasers. With their great height, they can look over boundaries and borders observing what people down below can’t see. Recently, I started making stilt walking characters with eyes on top of giant poles like Li’l Yello (2013).
Adding four “legs” to these pieces made a kind of architecture like a litter, where someone or something is carried overhead. In a parade of litters, the place above is a place of control, power, and privilege. Women rode in litters to be protected, as did the pope before he had the pope mobile. At about the same time I started doing drawings of knots, thinking about knots as a metaphor for things that are tangled. The absurdity of privileging knots by putting them up high on litters and parading them around was really funny to me.
Rail: It’s great that you’re looking at different forms of power and privilege when a lot of your work from the nineties is about the reversal of power.
Davidson: I’m calling these works Ridin’ High. The new sculptures parody the power implied in being carried overhead. Also, the knots will be sporting bandanas to communicate their preferences! Do you know the hanky code from gay culture?
Rail: From the 70s and 80s?
Davidson: Yeah. Now they've been updated with new colors because culturally there are more codes. For the show I’m going to do a hand-drawn bandana and create a print in the eighteen colors of the new code. It will be accompanied by an index card to decipher the code.
Rail: Will these works be in the show at Lord Ludd?
Davidson: Yes, they will. The show will actually be called Ridin’ High, after the “litter” pieces. There will be a number of inflatable sculptures in the show, new works as well as several pieces from the late nineties. There’s going to be several miniature corset pieces, called Loulous. They’re only about forty-eight inches tall. The new inflatable sculptures titled Fallen Clouds will be hung from the ceiling with large cotton cords on the floor.
Another piece included in the exhibit will be Blue Moon (for Elvis). It was made in the late nineties as a “tribute” to Elvis Presley. He wore a corset like Mae West during his Las Vegas period. I’ve often felt that he was similar to Mae West in that they were constricted by public identities, not unlike how the corset binds in Blue Moon.
When Blue Moon was in a show in Germany, an Austrian curator told me that she really loved the piece because many German-Austrian women were obsessed with their undergarments. I taught in Salzburg several summers and realized that there were many stores for women’s undergarments. In American culture, young women go to Victoria’s Secret, but older women are supposed to hide in a corner. This curator was definitely not into hiding in a corner.
Rail: Remaining visible is crucial.
Davidson: When I began using humor in the mid-90s, I often thought about the similarity between my humor and comedians like Margaret Cho who were using their bodies and their histories more like male comedians. I am interested in the part of the Fool, a traditional male role, but a role I see myself in as an artist through my work. I think it relates to women comedians, especially those from the nineties and today who, though they worked in a largely male-dominated profession, felt strong enough to be honest about their own body humor. I like to watch Louis CK who is funny and out there about masturbating all the time. (Laughter.) I like that openness. I hope women can be open and be accepted and supported like a man sharing and joking about his problems. I like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, too. They are more mainstream now than they were in the 90s.
Rail: Do you like Amy Schumer?
Davidson: You know, I haven’t paid much attention to her. Is she good?
Rail: She’s good. Speaking of female comedians who are unabashed, like Amy Schumer, a reviewer once said your Mae West work’s fleshiness and overtness gave it a “looming sexuality.” The fact that the inflatables are unavoidable is fantastic. Do you automatically look for the subversiveness in tropes and signs or do you start with something that’s well known and then challenge it?
Davidson: Thank you. (Laughter.) In the early seventies women were doing diaristic work but I often felt there was a relationship to victimhood that didn't interest me. The character of Mae West, the cowgirl, or the other characters or tropes that I play with come readymade in terms of representation in popular culture. Tropes are useful in the way that stereotypes in fiction operate. They are a short cut to meaning and useful for quickly communicating to the viewer, but that is not the complete story. There are figures in the West Indian parades like Moko Jumbie that interest me. He is a very tall African figure who dances holding up his skirt that reminds me of crossdressing carnival figures. There is a topsy turvy aspect where men become women and women become men. The grotesque becomes beautiful. I’ve wanted to explore a character like this in my work for a long time.
Something that you were saying reminded me of the piece, Double Exposure,a giant piece (20 by 20 by 36 feet) commissioned for the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 2003. When they asked me to make a piece for the space where Ronald Bladen’s giant X was in the Minimalist show Scale as Content in 1967, I immediately wanted to make a piece that was utterly female. Double Exposure hung from the skylight by a faux rope and was lit from the inside. It filled the space of the gallery. The walls of the surrounding gallery were painted pink. I also picked out 19th-century white marble busts of women from their collection that looked as if they were being served on a platter. I met a writer who told me that he really hated this piece at the Corcoran. He said it was completely threatening to him.
Rail: And he couldn’t see how absurd that was as a man?
Davidson: No! He told me he had to walk around the edges to get away from the piece. I thought that was fabulous. I was so pleased. Other people loved it. Children loved to play under it, musicians enjoyed playing there because the sound was vibrant. A wedding took place under the piece. It functioned as a sign of fertility. I really loved doing that piece.
Rail: The audience was challenged. No matter who views your work, they are all dealing with issues that your work presents or taps into.
Davidson: Right. Somehow the absurdity, the playfulness, the grotesque—the grotesque is hard for people to take sometimes—can be understood or intuited. The scale also doesn’t allow the viewer to ignore the work. Then my sculptures are similar to the carnival in that the viewer has to participate.
Rail: Speaking of the space, participation, the carnivalesque, and the bright colors that you use too, I wanted to ask you about spectacle. The work is unavoidable. It’s kind of a provocation.
Davidson: It is. It’s part of our life: we’re bombarded with imagery and sound. I never saw spectacle as a negative. I understand how it can be critiqued but I see it as a space where people can enjoy different aspects of visual culture. There’s a certain invitation to celebrate within spectacle. For me, celebration is as much present as critique. There’s bodily pleasure, visual pleasure, and immersion. It’s a kind of entrapment when you think about it.
But some people are so willing to engage. That’s why when I see the resurgence of burlesque in all of its grittiness, I’m supportive of that. It’s not perfect, but there’s a simplicity and a silliness. An intellectual examination is possible but it’s not served on a platter. If you want to research the visual history of the grotesque, you can, but you don’t have to. You can just enjoy it for what you see and what you feel in the moment. It’s a direct experience.
Rail: Clearly many people enjoy the experience. Congratulations on your Guggenheim Fellowship by the way. [Laughter.]
Davidson: Thank you. Yes. My husband got a Guggenheim at the same time.
Rail: That’s really exciting. I see that you have a Franz West catalogue. I love Franz West.
Davidson: I love the Passstücke, or Adaptives, because of their material presence, relationship to the body, ugliness, and absurdity. When I taught in Austria, I was able to go see his work in the landscape at Innsbruck. They were enormous pink lacquered aluminum pieces inspired by the forms of Viennese sausages! So many people do not like his work here.
Rail: I had to really sit with his work at first. It’s very challenging.
Davidson: Yes. I love the way his sculptures appear to be so casual. One of his sculptures had a base propped up by a can. I’m trying to build a more casual way of making into my work. I don’t know how casual it was for him. I love his collages too.
Rail: The collages are fantastic. Speaking of two-dimensional works, I wanted to ask you about your photographs. Did they start as documentation or purposeful manipulations of the pieces you were photographing?
Davidson: For “Scrupulously Fake,”my first series of photographs, I was really interested in a much more erotic representation of sexuality than my sculptures. The photographs are all details from my sculptures, presented as close-up constructed bodies. I was also interested in Gayatri Spivak’s writing about culture and art. “Scrupulously Fake” is from a quote based on what she said about women faking orgasms. The funny thing about those pieces is that when they were exhibited at Dorsky Gallery, a woman came in and said that they should be ashamed of exhibiting pornography. [Laughter.] So much of what we see visually is completely infused with our imagination. The woman in the gallery who saw pornographic images when they were pictures of sculptures is a perfect example. Another way I use photography involves forms that I’ve been working with for a long time. Roped is a photograph of objects and materials I have used in my sculpture. I think of it as a still life because it is an image of objects set up in my studio. It doesn’t exist as a sculpture. I draw in my sketchbooks constantly. I make photographs and drawings when I want to, I guess. [Laughter.] Yes, that’s true. At this point, I do things when I want to.
ASHLEY MCNELIS is a writer, curator, and art historian based in New York