In some respects, what you look for in art is the same thing you look for in a good massage. You don't go for a massage in the mindset that some white-robed clinician is going to dispassionately manipulate your muscles. You go for the candles, the oils, the Celtic harp; you go to be transported into another realm, one grounded in the body but evocative of emotions and the symbolism of the spirit. This is what humans have sought from art since we crushed pigments into the walls of Lascaux: a ticket out of the ordinary, into the ecstatic. Despite the contemporary art establishment's fixations on detachment and irony, certain artists defy the fashions and make art that awes and enraptures. Nancy Azara is one of them.
There is something Byzantine in her carvings overlaid with 22-karat gold, something perversely pagan about the oxblood paint with which she floods the crannies of her compositions, and something both familiar and fearsome in the witchlike handprints that claw their way into her paintings on panel.
On the eve of her show opening at Froelick, Azara, a native New Yorker who has written a book about the unconscious and founded a feminist art institute, sat down with WW at Mother's Bistro to drink mint tea and talk about the intersection of art and magic.
WW: First of all, what's up with all the gold leaf?
Nancy Azara: It's all about the lusciousness of light in contrast to the extreme brutality we live with. People in the New York art world always used to say to me, "Oh, you're the one who always works with gold leaf!" At a certain point I said to myself, OK, then, enough of this gold leaf! I tried to give it up but couldn't. I use it because it gets you closest to the effect light has at sunrise and sunset. It also gives off what I call spirit light, which is the light we see surrounding saints in paintings and the light that lingers in a room after people have left or passed on.
The hands and fern leaves and journey spirals that we see in your work--are you dealing on any level with Jungian archetypes?
Yes and no. I'm making the essential human self visually manifest, but my work is less focused than Jung's. I'm interested in universality. I'm trying to take people and myself to places outside ordinary reality, so we can find out what's going on in those places. The kind of reality I'm going for is different than the practical, rational, literary mode of reality people were concerned with in the 1950s, for example. I think in the 1960s people began trying to get at this other place through psychedelic drugs and consciousness-raising. In my work I try to take the magic quality of those places outside ordinary reality and transform it into something material, so we can actually look at it.
You're using the sensual, the physical, to convey the ethereal.
Yes. Art opens a door to unspoken and unacknowledged realities, but we access those realms through our bodies and minds.
Does your spirituality influence your work?
I think so. I was raised Catholic, and my heritage is Sicilian, so there were lots of candles and grottoes and dark light. I consider myself a Buddhist now and have done a lot of meditation and sitting practice. Meditation was a big part of the consciousness-raising workshops I taught in the 1970s and '80s. I would lead the students into guided meditation, a technique that goes back to the Buddha, and after I brought them out of it, I'd say, "Now draw what you saw or felt during the experience." Afterwards, we'd discuss it. Many times it helped artists find their own voices, their own authentic shapes, colors and forms.
Is there anything about the art world that pisses you off?
I get pissed off at the fact that it's such a commercial venture and that it doesn't allow for many ways of seeing. But it's changing. People are paying attention to what contemporary artists are doing in Africa and Asia, and the feminist dialogue has altered the equation. Back when I was in art school, there was the attitude that women are beautiful and men are smart. People would say to me, "Oh, how lovely you're in art school--you'll make a lovely wife to an artist someday!" That isn't as common now, but there's still much work to be done.
Spirit Taking Form: Making a Spiritual Practice of Making Artby Nancy Azara(Red Wheel, 160 pages, $18.95)