Nancy Graves has made quite a name for herself in art circles these past 20 years. First, she startled the art world with a series of highly realistic, roughly life-size camels made of wood, steel, burlap, animal skin, and paint. Then she came out with sculptures of animal skeletons, fossil fragments, and bones; totemic structures; colorful abstract paintings; and smallish bronzes. And these, in turn, were followed by what turned out to be her major contribution to American art to date: brightly colored and freely improvised bronze sculptures of various unrelated ``found'' objects, imaginatively connected in space. A sizable number of the latter, together with a few of her earlier pieces - including two of her best studies of camels - make up ``Nancy Graves: A Sculpture Retropsective'' at the Brooklyn Museum here. This, the first museum exhibition devoted exclusively to Ms. Graves's sculpture, was organized by the Forth Worth Art Museum, and installed here by Charlotta Kotik.
The works range from 1969 to 1986, and are displayed chronologically. ``Head on Spear,'' a large camel's head mounted on a thin shaft, alerts the viewer that Graves is no ordinary artist, a realization underscored by ``Mongolian Bactrian,'' a large, richly detailed and remarkably lifelike standing camel, and by a number of her bone and fossil assemblages and a handful of her evocative totemic constructions.
Most of the exhibition, however, is devoted to her highly imaginative work in bronze. Here she is something of a pioneer, having developed a method of direct-casting objects, both organic and manmade, that she then assembles into provocative, often complex sculptures that depend on a kind of engineering juggling act for their success.
The objects she casts range from lotus leaves, soundproofing materials, Chinese cooking scissors, carob beans, and plastic bubble-wrap packing material to sections of rope, turkey breastbones, oyster shells, and palmetto leaves. These are then stored until needed, at which time she draws on them - much as a writer draws on words - to serve as the components of her fanciful creations.
The process of assembling these works is tricky and unpredictable. In ``Bilanx,'' for instance, a 20-pound Chinese cucumber, directly cast in solid bronze, cantilevers from a catalpa bean welded at a diagonal to a Monstera-leaf base that touches at only three points. As she says rather proudly, ``It shouldn't stand up, but it does!''
That isn't all that makes these sculptures exceptional, however. A part of their charm and impact derives from their brilliant and frequently unconventional coloration. Bright yellows, greens, blues, and pinks are played off, in novel ways, against each other and against more somber and restrained tones and textures. Colors that shouldn't work together somehow suprise and delight.
Her use of color gives Graves the decided advantage of being both sculptor and painter at the same time, and of fashioning works that straddle the often irreconcilable worlds of two- and three-dimensionality. Like Calder, she enchants and entertains while breaking down some of art's historical barriers and reconciling some of its apparent contradictions.
For some critics, this is heresy of the worst sort: They see sculpture as sculpture and painting as painting, and believe the two should never overlap. But why this should be, especially if what this heresy produces has the capacity to move and delight and the ability to open up significant areas of artistic expression, is never adequately explained.
There are limits to what such sculpture can do, primarily because there is always an element of self-congratulatory posturing in work that is predicated on the transformation of clusters of unrelated everyday objects into art. Combine a banana, a tire, a shoe, and a palmetto leaf into a piece of sculpture, and, unless the original identities of these things are totally submerged (and what would be the point of that?), attention will always revert, at some point, to how clever the artist was to bring such elements together. Not even Picasso's witty metamorphosis of a toy car into the face of a baboon could escape this limitation, and nothing Graves has yet produced can match that brilliant performance.
What she does give us is an art of wit, charm, and enchantment that refuses to be tied down to rules and that unceasingly explores new dimensions of what we, for want of a better word, term creativity. As such, it is extraordinarily effective and considerably more valuable than the work of many of her contemporaries, who may promise more but accomplish less. At the Brooklyn Museum through Feb. 29.