Gary Card, set designer and illustrator, on ‘Circus Women’ after Elie Nadelman (February 20, 1882 – December 28, 1946)
GB Why did you choose this?
GC I’ve been in New York recently. I’m not often struck by things that I’m genuinely passionate about, but I went to see a ballet in the Lincoln Center and I saw this – the most extraordinary, gigantic sculpture of these two plump women that looked like they could be made out of soap. I became fascinated by the scale of it and the way it felt to touch the marble. Coming from the fashion industry and working with models who are so tiny and have become an ideal of female beauty, I was drawn to these two plump women.Then I went to the Whitney and there was a miniature version of the sculpture and I became really interested in the artist, Elie Nadelman.
GB And you saw them at the ballet where I presume you were watching fairly skeletal dancers. It’s interesting that Nadelman loved acrobatics and seeing what the body was capable of – but he made these two chubby circus performers out of immovable marble.
GC Exactly. Nadelman committed suicide in 1946 and about ten years later the Lincoln Center commissioned this and it was scaled up from the smaller model. So it wasn’t even him that thought it would be perfect for that setting.
GB So you’re not someone that has to see the hand of the maker in a work of art because he didn’t even make this?
GC No, although apparently it is scaled up perfectly. I just find it a lovely thing.
GB Does the fact that it’s in New York affect your view of it?
GC Maybe, but I think the most important thing for me is that I’m very drawn to figurative work, particularly busts and faces. All my own work is figurative. I’m thinking about making sculptures more myself.
GB Nadelman was such a part of fashionable New York through the 1920s and was very aware of all the different art movements and yet he flew in the face of a lot of Modernist thought because he believed that classical sculpture was one of the highest forms of beauty. Would you agree with him on that?
GC Yes it’s interesting that having started out in New York under the wing of Alfred Stieglitz and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, eventually the art world turned their back on him – which suggests that if you go against the grain for long enough life becomes difficult and it’s easier if you can assimilate in some way.
GB He collected folk art because he found it so simple and unpretentious. Do you think that was a reaction against manifestoed art movements and conceptual art? He went from Poland to Avant-Garde Paris to New York. He lived in a sophisticated intellectual milieu but didn’t strive to interact with the art movements he lived through.
GC Yes there’s a lovely simplicity and directness to his work and you can see the folk influence as well as the classical structures. I spent time in the Met in New York and I suppose in my own work I want to reinterpret classical works in new fabrications.
GB Was your training in art?
GC I studied theatre design. I knew I wanted to go to art school but I didn’t have the confidence to think in art theory terms, so the idea of doing theatre was a way of using a lot of different ideas in my work. I can remember when I was a kid hearing people dismiss Anish Kapoor’s work as fairground attractions and wondering what on earth was wrong with that if it was engaging people. In fact my last show was called ‘Abandoned Amusement Park Attraction’.
GB Do you think about beauty when you’re creating your work?
GC I guess my job as a set designer is usually about beauty – whether it’s sexy or aggressive beauty. I like to turn things on their head a bit when I’m making my own work. I did a show called Lula for a fashion illustration gallery, which was about an ageing heiress. I wanted to create a show that had a story and a narrative and a slightly skewed view of beauty.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
GC That’s a difficult one. It’s an immediate emotional reaction for me. It’s an impulse that’s hard to describe. It’s not an intellectual process. I’m also heavily dyslexic so I’ve always struggled with language – which probably informs how I work – with an intuitive idea and a visceral response to the visual. Maybe that’s why a lot of art leaves me cold. That’s another reason I’m interested in Elie Nadelman. It seems that he went with instinct, whether that was the cool thing to do or not.
GB And yet you are cool..
GC No, I don’t see myself as cool. I’m just quite stubborn and only take on projects I love. I don’t think my view is particularly fashionable. I suppose my end goal is to make sculptures but I’m uncomfortable with the theory, which is why I don’t call myself an artist. Even when I’ve made an effort to understand the theory I’ve found it disappointing. Art dealers have told me to just get over that, so hopefully soon!
GB But you do like art that’s not at all beautiful – like Paul McCarthy’s work.
GC But his work does have a beauty to me.
GB Do you think he’d be one of those artists that say you’re trivialising their work by calling it beautiful?
GC Probably but I really do find beauty in the shapes he makes, even if it is George Bush having sex with a pig. I find the shapes mesmerising. You can’t argue about his inflatable Pinocchio, surely?
GB It’s certainly striking – but beautiful?
GC Well it’s visually captivating and I want to go back and look at it again and again but when it comes to genuine beauty I chose the Nadelman over any of Paul McCarthy’s works just because it struck me in a really pure, genuine and honest way.