ABOUT THE SOUFFLÉ|
by david frankel
To be breathless is to be excited about life-but also to be a little raced and rushed, a little out of balance, not quite in command. It is an easy feeling to come by in one of the world's big cities, where heading out for work means joining a parade: Are you audience for or participant in the spectacle of the crowd? Are you viewing or on view? Are you walking the street or is the street walking you? This is also the feeling you can get from Nancy Davidson's sculpture.
Davidson makes her works from balloons-large, strong-skinned, colorful latex bladders of the kind used to take weather readings in the upper atmosphere, where the air is thin. Brought down to earth, these balloons have an outsize bulbous presence, like party decor for giants, but they don't look completely out of place: Although they are marketed as weather balloons, you may well have seen them here below, printed with slogans and used for advertising-"like for gas stations in the lower Midwest," says Davidson. So, they have a cheerful post-pop-ish side. Also, Davidson doesn't just blow them up, she dresses them up, in laces and nettings and other seductive froufrous that both ornament these swollen orbs and, when drawn tight, change their form. Strapped into buttocky curves and bosomy arcs, the balloons are both disorientingly hyperbolic and utterly familiar; although fragmented and overscale, they are unmistakably a gallery of the female body.
Swelling and stretching, bulging and straining-the works call not for adjectives but for verbs, and for verbs of movement, of fettered but muscled pressure. Given the shapes and the lingerielike costumes that Davidson invents, that energy is insinuatingly erotic, but the motion is more suggested than performed. Some works, for instance the Budlettes (1997)-a grove of balloons suspended on steel stalks, like large hanging plant buds or standing lamps?shift subtly with the air, or with the viewer's passage; others are implicitly dynamic in the threat they suffer from gravity, being hung high on a wall or from the ceiling, like the Carnivoleyes (1998-99), or perhaps leaning at an angle over the viewer, like the eight-foot-high Bluemoon (1998). More often, though, the moves are in the mind. In this respect, the work runs a reversal: The latent volatility of the rubber's taut elastic skin, the sense that it may burst at any moment, brings potent physical tension to objects that are actually still. This is one of the ways Davidson implicates the viewer in breathlessness: The scenes of her installations are both luxuriously attractive and subliminally high-strung, managing a gentle explosiveness. The viewer is both enticed and amiably vulnerable. A kindred paradox emerges through the work's scale, which, although keyed to the human body, is so excessively Boteroesque as to suggest some considerable heft-yet the viewer instantly recognizes that these puffed-up volumes are actually closer to weightless, a souffle of matter and air. In this breach, humor enters. "The first thing people do when they see a balloon," says Davidson, "is smile. I don't think I've met a person who doesn't have a relationship to a balloon that isn't about some kind of pleasure."
Davidson's inflatables give a vitalizing injection the so-called theatricality of minimal art-a matter of charged relationships among viewer, object, and space. Going to art school in the late sixties and early seventies, Davidson was crucially influenced by minimalism, but felt it lacked a way to move beyond formal issues and create a less lofty relationship with the viewer. She is closer to the postminimalist Eva Hesse, whose art affected her in many ways-in its sensuality, the fleshiness of its materials, its use of repetition, its struggle with gravity, its fragility, its reinvestment in the human body. All of these qualities appear in different ways in Davidson's work, in versions of her own. But the mood she really runs with is humor. For Davidson, much of today's art-like minimalism, if for different reasons-does not fully connect with its potential audience, occupying a "tribal place" that it cannot transgress. She wants to make work that doesn't have to be explained, that speaks for itself to a wide range of viewers. And humor is her route.
Davidson's earliest work involved abstract drawings set in installations she calls "bilateral," in that they were based on bilateral symmetry-a formal habit still detectable in her current art, in which trusses and ties often bifurcate a balloon into equal sections. (Another continuance from the beginning is the larger-than-life scale.) Around 1974, she began to work with frottage. Making oil-stick rubbings of floors, she then used a mix of photography and painting to transfer the resulting images onto canvas. Although based on the wall, these works reflected a sensitivity to environment, and led to more theatrical uses of space, in which the rubbings entered into arrangements with transparent, gauzy fabrics-cultural signifiers for a certain species of eros. Davidson also produced such "paintings" as Striped Skirt Pointing (1993) a stretcher covered with pleated fabric and sewn at the bottom with a frilly hem. In addition to taking a satirical poke at the conventions of painting, works like these charted the growth in Davidson's work of paired concerns with femininity and with fun.
In the early nineties, Davidson began to imagine an art that would occupy three-dimensional space, commanding the scale and physical impact of sculpture, yet would be light in weight. "The materials of sculpture," she remembers, "seemed to me heavy and hard, and the process of making sculptural form was slow and difficult and imperfect. Sculpture always has a connotation of male strength; there's something about the materials that seems to imply brute force or show of power-weight, scale, death." Out of nowhere, in the summer of 1992, she thought of the weather balloon. Submitting one of these objects to containment by a clothing rack, she found that the way the rack shaped the balloon immediately captured her imagination. "I began doing things to the balloon without really thinking, squeezing it and manipulating it, and I got great pleasure out of it. . . I could make it small, I could make it big, I could create form by using structures of rope, and I could do it endlessly. It was the perfect medium to explore sculptural issues." She also enjoyed the balloons' palette, and the certain sense of euphoria that they introduced; she connected them with the energy she felt in certain art of the sixties. In fact, the title of the current exhibition is, of course, inspired by Jean-Luc Godard's film Breathless, or A Bout de Souffle (196o), and Davidson sees her work as harmonizing in spirit with the French New Wave.
Davidson's association of the conventional media of sculpture with qualities of masculinity frames a problem that many contemporary women artists feel they face: how to make work they can call their own within the context of an art history that has largely excluded them, and in which even the materials are therefore associated with men. The impression made on American art by abstract expressionism over the last half-century has its own part to play here, in that the concept of action painting gave the painter's every touch and gesture a heightened value; for many later artists, the result was a bombastic celebration of the artist's personality and, ultimately, a kind of macho cult. The kind of systematic automatism seen in Davidson's floor rubbings shares a reactive impulse seen in a good deal of post-abstract expressionist art, from Jasper Johns to Andy Warhol and on, in that it registers gesture and touch while also denying those actions' sense of personal trace. The image is given, not invented. Davidson's latex works similarly both invoke the artist's touch and refuse it: The balloon can be tied into shape, but cannot be modeled or carved; it is both infinitely malleable to the artist's touch and instantly forgetful of it. Viewers of Davidson's balloons often try to touch them. Davidson has mixed feelings about this-the rubber can stretch and wear-but she recognizes the impulse. (She also recognizes the fingerprints: The latex is powdery on the surface and records touch-marks.) The extravagantly feminine imagery of her work picks up, she believes, on the unconscious attraction of the balloons' shape: "These forms have an appeal for everyone because they address the pre-oedipal state. They're the giant breast, the shape of longing, whether for women or men." At the same time, each balloon also gains a suggestive potential through an accessory to its pendulous rotundity, the nozzle, which appears masculine as well as feminine, evoking phallus as well as nipple. Davidson sees her pieces as excessively but ambiguously gendered, like crossdressing: "Part of their humor for me and for a lot of women, and I think for men, too, is that we all know that gender is something you put on and wear like a mask."
The associations of Davidson's forms go beyond the erotic. In each work in the Carnivaleyes Series, a segment of cloth transforms a balloon into a pair of eyes, returning your gaze; the watcher becomes the watched. In Neither Bigugly Nor Smallnice (1995), the sphere becomes a girl's head?she has braids hanging down on either side?with the nozzle her pencil?thin neck. The absurdist quality of the image fills the work with idiosyncratic character, and Davidson, in fact, finds herself thinking of her works as quirky personalities. Bluemoon, for instance, she sees as an overendowed Viennese lady wearing a corset, the grommeted band of white fabric that girths the sculpture's waist. Dulcinea (1999) is named after the character in Cervantes's Don Quixote, a novel about people who have outlived their time, and whose standards can only be seen as ridiculous, yet who somehow retain their integrity. A sixteen-foot-high column of balloons popping out of a bulging sleeve, Dulcinea is both ungainly and imposing. In their excess, their surfeit, their grotesquerie, works like these evoke a Rabelaisian comedy. At the same time, as Davidson says, "The balloon has a sort of perfection in every curve"; the mechanics of cellular surfaces force an elegance on whatever forms they mold. This elegance, though, is impermanent. "The work has a fragility," Davidson points out; "it doesn't last. You're aware of the possibility that eventually the rubber will just pop. That's one of the absurdities about fragility-it has enormous meaning in the present, and then it's gone." Both breathless and full of breath, full of life, Davidson's balloons also phrase the vulnerability of the human shell.