I love hearing and learning from other people’s stories. And I love sharing them. Verbal MAP’s “In the Studio With” is my opportunity to do just that. To kick off this series, I visited the creative hub of Los Angeles-based artist Nancy Baker Cahill.
Nancy has a delightfully hyperactive brain and curious mind, is a fierce thinker and doer with no shortage of ways to scream, shout and at times gently whisper with heart open her unique creative expression. Nancy and I go way back, and when I sat down with her in her Atwater studio I knew I was in for a delicious cerebral powwow.
Nancy’s work is about power, both in concept and rendering. She’s obsessed with the construct and implications of imposed systems and paradigms of power; its byproduct on the individual and collective psyche; as well as the engenderment of revolt and resistance against it. On a macro and micro level, Nancy addresses the strain misused, abused or denied power can inflict. The sublimation of individualism is a sin she confronts in her work, and Nancy rolls up her sleeves, slips on the boxing gloves and dives in headfirst.
“My work is about addressing struggle, offering a tension and dialogue moderated with an unknown trust.” Trust allows us to live with things we don’t know, and for Nancy it is the counterweight to the chaos that’s stirred up when systems are confronted or shattered, announcing itself when surrender is taken off the table. She embraces the coexistence of chaos and trust as an opportunity that’s extricated when schemata spin off their axis. Disorder can create a new order, and the thrust of Nancy’s work is to poke a stick at the idea of a binary distinction between order and chaos: “I am much more comfortable playing around in the ambiguous middle.”
Her large-scale graphite on works on paper are delivered with a direct intensity through corporal and sinewy forms that push, slither, intertwine, pull apart, submerge and emerge in a graceful yet fraught choreography. The forms address “power’s containment and release through unrepresented body power, muscular corporality but stripped of a skin, rendering the masses vulnerable, raw and exposed, yet inherently strong and resilient.”
Nancy thinks of the works “as sculptural, using paper and light, mass and space to contain and liberate the forms.” Her media of choice, paper and graphite, “are elemental, primal, ancient and the black and white allows the conversation to exist in light and dark, and having these elements grappling in dynamic tension of receding and advancing is the formal goal.” She wants the work to stir its audience into to “feeling something,” whether it is a sense of empowerment or perhaps discomfort, or both. “Size has its political implications, and the pieces are dramatic and bold, with conscious nuance achieved through the interplay of space, light and form. It’s a balance wrought by a concern and determination for the work to reveal an offering, reprieve or mutability. The looser edges allow light to define them, providing a freedom through precision.”
In her most recent series, “Surds”, Nancy ratchets up the form and content dial. “Surds” is a mathematical term utilized by Susan J. Brison in her book Aftermath, which is concerned with the philosophical, theoretical and visceral ramifications of trauma to the body. Brison uses the term “Surds” as a metaphor for the effect her personal trauma had on her otherwise “predictable” life; the aftermath of physical assault resulting in “things that are remembered in the body.” Meaning “nonsensical” or “mute”, surds are, as Nancy explained, “a symbol for life’s unpredicted ‘irrational’ external influences that create upheaval and pull us off an ordered path.” In essence, it’s a determined, analytic system that quantifies the influence of the unforeseen, for better or worse. It’s a compelling or perhaps confounding concept for its analytical distillation to seeming randomness. “It’s philosophical math… predictability and the safety net of the alleged predictability interrupted; what we know and assume to be true, surds throw this into chaos.”
In this series, what fascinates Nancy most is “the literal, mathematical and conceptual meaning of surd as it applies in contradistinction to my chaotic body forms — a way of trying to make sense of the unexpected, the ambush.” The works’ corporality and forms are punctuated by colored circles, shapes that are “recognizable and thereby ostensibly impose order. Their presence implies a form of language, technology or decipherable code.” This allusion of pattern serves as a metaphysical and compassionate parody of our only too human “eagerness to attempt to impose order as to make sense of things, to look for patterns where none may exist.”
“As humans we operate with an unwitting calamitous nature,” and the best trust is that in all of the chaos there’s fodder for illumination when we work deep within the muck and mire. The only reality is our own truth, and our determination should be to make best choices and then buckle up for the bumpy ride.
To see more of Nancy’s work visit her website and enjoy.