Material Memory: Postmodern Nostalgia in the Art of Nancy Wisti Grayson

 Nancy Wisti Grayson,  Papyrus Tile , Acrylic, graphite, vellum, and grout on recycled styrofoam, 11 x 6.5 x 2.5 inches

Nancy Wisti Grayson, Papyrus Tile, Acrylic, graphite, vellum, and grout on recycled styrofoam, 11 x 6.5 x 2.5 inches

by Crystal Rosenthal

Since the 1990s, a growing interest in historical representation has emerged in contemporary art, characterized by works that display an overt fascination with architectural ruins and obsolete technologies.[1] Contemporary artist Nancy Wisti Grayson’s work is emblematic of this nostalgic impulse. Indeed, several of her works appear as attempts at reanimating histories through the representation of ruins and discarded objects. The journey back in time is not to escape the present but to reflect on its condition - giving her artwork a Janus-faced quality. In positing a “once was” in relation to a “now,” Grayson recognizes in the past a potential critique of the present.

As an artist, Grayson combines personal experiences through art historical and archaeological critiques to awaken an internal relation between past and present. Her work revolves around “memory, history and time: how it's recorded, how certain moments are preserved and how memories change, and in that process, become altered and something new.”[2] Grayson fabricates images of found objects, discarded objects, and objects of nature to conjure up an appreciation of the past, articulating an asynchronous reality which intermingles time and space. Painstakingly manufactured, her artwork bridges the distance between the authentic and the artificial, playing with fundamental assumptions about representation: its role as surrogate, its status as an abstraction, and its use as an imitation to refer to the real.

In Oyster Shells and Rubble imitation functions less as a pastiche of the archaeological midden (like the middens of Monte Testaccio or Oxyrhynchus), but more as a reflexive device through which the artist calls attention to her family’s history. The sculptural installation composed of acrylic, graphite, mica, and grout on recycled styrofoam mimics Blue Point oyster shells and heterogeneous architectural debris, all carefully choreographed to form an unsystematic arrangement. Positioned without obvious context over the surface of the floor, the installation of oyster refuse and utilitarian slabs of architecture cascades from the corner resembling an archaeological trash heap. The oval-shaped oyster shell simulacra of whitish-grey and blue color are positioned deliberately among the substantial detritus of multi colored reddish brown and ocher architectural fragments. The discarded bivalves mingled with ineffectual rubble evoke an image of 17th century shell middens of New York City, which earned Pearl Street its moniker.[3] Yet, due to overharvesting, dredging, and pollution, the once over abundant oysters of New York City are nearly extinct. Inasmuch as Oyster Shells and Rubble pays homage to her autochthonous roots, it also critiques progress and reminds the viewer that modernity is not a monolithic process that entails only gains, but can bring about catastrophic and destructive effects.

In the collection entitled fragment/rocks Grayson produces works that highlight the archaeological process of discovery and interpretation. Counterfeit frescoes flood the senses with architectonic images of an ancient and opulent Rome. In their style of representation, however, the ruins belong to modernity - styrofoam, acrylic, and grout are organically coupled and made to look like an antique fresco; and linear time and geometric space does not exist. Reading Grayson through Walter Benjamin’s concept of history as a construction, will reveal an idea of reflective nostalgia whereby when we reconsider past events, we’re not so much returning to another time and retrieving material or events; but we are restaging those events here and now in order to think about what’s happening here and now, to think about the present.

Indeed, the asynchronous qualities of Domus Aurea, a piece in the series fragment/rocks, illustrates that Grayson is less interested in restoring the historical record than in turning the Domus Aurea into a symbolic space of individual topoi and resistance to power. Domus Aurea takes the form of a roughly equilateral triangular fragment, slightly larger than a hand, which mounts directly to the wall in the manner typical of Italian archaeological collections. The fragment’s coloring is made to appear consistent with Roman fresco-painting techniques; but, instead of layered plaster, styrofoam and grout form the core supporting material. The coloring of the triangle consists of hues of ochre. A yellow triangle overwhelms the bottom angle and a red line bisects the entire triangle defining the inner edge of the yellow triangle. The eponymous title of this work borrows its name from one of the most notorious buildings in antiquity, Nero’s Golden House. The colors of the piece pay homage to the resplendent colors of ancient Rome and allude to the magnificent frescoes found within the house; and the red line censures the opulent red used in Roman frescoes and awakens the historical narrative of the megalomaniacal fifth-emperor of Rome.[4] 

The emperor Nero was notorious for his inconsistency and emotional instability, and his desire to build grandiose but unnecessary projects. He desperately wanted to immortalize his name, and acquire a lasting reputation. Often ill advised and occasionally capricious, many took advantage of his mercurial disposition.[5] After the fire of 64 AD, he began work on his Golden House, using the most expensive pigments and modern day conveniences. (Vermilion in antiquity was a luxury pigment, highly prized and state regulated with a price tag of seventy sesterces per pound. Disreputable publicani, or merchants, often adulterated their vermilion and both Pliny and Vitruvius record methods of testing the integrity of this pigment while condemning the use of it due to its extravagance).[6] 

Recognize anyone? Conceptually, Grayson has isolated a moment from ancient history to evaluate the present state of affairs. True, the present regime is not the Roman Principate reborn; but first-century Rome and present-day Washington, DC can be seen as comparable systems in certain important respects, so that historical understanding of the ancient example may suggest possible interpretations of present developments, or at least raise useful questions.[7] 

Imitation and representation are crucial elements of Grayson’s language and point to the undercurrent of nostalgia that distinguishes her works. This process leads to works that invite the viewer to think about the past; to make connections between events, characters, and objects; to join together in memory; and to reconsider ways in which the past is represented in the wider culture. Nostalgia is a complicated matter. As an emotional response to time’s passage, it has often been viewed with suspicion; but conceptions of nostalgia have evolved with the times, giving rise to what might be characterized as postmodern nostalgia.[8] Manipulating this idea, the artwork of Grayson articulates a new dimension of nostalgia: less about loss, more about reinvigoration. Much like the artists of the Italian Renaissance descending into the "grottoes" of the Golden House to copy ancient decorative frescoes, Grayson's brand of nostalgia acknowledges the lives of objects and the continuity of narrative, suggesting that our own contemporary creations will indeed become the future objects of historical speculation.

 Nancy Wisti Grayson,  Oyster Shells and Rubble , Acrylic, graphite, mica, grout on recycled styrofoam, dimensions variable

Nancy Wisti Grayson, Oyster Shells and Rubble, Acrylic, graphite, mica, grout on recycled styrofoam, dimensions variable

 Nancy Wisti Grayson,  Found: Domus Aurea , Acrylic, graphite, and grout on recycled styrofoam, 4.75 x 6 x 1.25 inches

Nancy Wisti Grayson, Found: Domus Aurea, Acrylic, graphite, and grout on recycled styrofoam, 4.75 x 6 x 1.25 inches

 Nancy Wisti Grayson,  Found: Fragment , Acrylic, graphite, grout, styrofoam, 7 x 6 x 1.5 inches

Nancy Wisti Grayson, Found: Fragment, Acrylic, graphite, grout, styrofoam, 7 x 6 x 1.5 inches

 Nancy Wisti Grayson,  Found: San Clemente , Acrylic, graphite, house paint, grout, styrofoam on wood base, 8.5 x 3.5 x 3.5 inches

Nancy Wisti Grayson, Found: San Clemente, Acrylic, graphite, house paint, grout, styrofoam on wood base, 8.5 x 3.5 x 3.5 inches

 Nancy Wisti Grayson,  Found Fresco: Lost Bird , Acrylic, graphite, pastel, vellum, grout on recycled styrofoam, 

Nancy Wisti Grayson, Found Fresco: Lost Bird, Acrylic, graphite, pastel, vellum, grout on recycled styrofoam, 


[1] On this trend, see Mark Godfrey, "The Artist as Historian," October , vol. 120, Spring 2007, pp. 140-7.

[2] Artist statement from ArtSlant, https://www.artslant.com/global/artists/show/378972-nancy-wisti-grayson?tab=PROFILE. Accessed on June 4, 2016.

[3] Kurlansky, Mark. The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2007, p. 12.

[4] Email from artist.

[5] On Nero see Suetonius, The Lives of The Twelve Caesars, chapters 34-40.

[6] On publicani see Pliny’s Natural Histories, 33.40.118; On tests see Pliny’s Natural Histories, 33.40.120 and Vitruvius 7.9.5.

[7] See Eidolon for additional articles on Trump and the classical world.

[8] Hutton, P. (2013). Preface: Reconsiderations of the Idea of Nostalgia in Contemporary Historical Writing. Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, 39(3), 1-9.