From a distance, Nancy Baker Cahill's drawings are dwarfed by their surroundings -- the tall, thick pillars and wide marble steps leading to a former altar -- at Vibiana. She calls this cathedral-turned-event space "gorgeously cavernous" and it is. Every sound is amplified. Every object in the venue appears tiny in comparison to the height of the ceiling and the broad expanse of the floor.
Her contributions are part of a new series called "Virgil." They are large, bold pieces. Graphite explodes on canvases that range from 51"x 51" to 51" x 56" and twists into abstract shapes. Still, inside this space, you won't catch the grandiosity of the works until you walk up close to them. In a way, that's the point. Cahill poses the question, what happens to a finished drawing inside a space this large? "What happens to your relationship to your work, to the architecture, to the experience of the work?" she asks before offering her own answer. "It's very different experiencing those in my garage, my dank, little garage. It's giving them a voice inside this spectacular space that, in a way, you can't do in a room with four white walls."
Cahill describes her artistic path as a "non-traditional" one. She studied studio art at Williams College, but, after graduation, went to work in public television. After she and her husband moved to Los Angeles, she began to work in art here and there. "I wasn't really settled as an artist," she said. "I went on to have a family." Less than ten years ago, she returned to the art world full-time. "It really wasn't a choice," she says. "I just knew that I had to do it. I had not done it for long enough that it was taking a toll on me."
In early 2013, Cahill began a series of daily drawings, a "visual diary," she says. She created an installation of the drawings inside her workspace. "When I saw all of the pieces as one in my studio, I realized that I was ready to go big," she says. That's what inspired Virgil. "I always loved working on a large scale. I've done large scale paintings. I've done large scale video projections, but I really hadn't done that with drawing in about 20 years," she says. "These drawings developed very intuitively, just as all of the daily drawings had."
Meanwhile, Amy Knoll Fraser, who is the managing partner at Vibiana, had stopped by Cahill's Los Feliz studio. "We started talking about drawing as maybe not a means to an end, but an end in itself," says Cahill. Those are the roots of the Vibiana show.
"Drawing has always been my first love and my primary medium," says Cahill. She has worked in other areas. Some of her best known work is in other media. Fascinomas, her 2012 show at Pasadena Museum of California Art, focused on painting and video. "As much as I love painting, video and drawing to me have the closest relationship," says Cahill of her overall body of work. She finds similarities in her video art and drawing in the way that she uses light. She talks about "manipulating light" and how that "alters form" or can "affect the sense of gravity around the piece." She creates abstractions. "There's a different kind of poetry to it. It offers different possibilities," she says. "It opens up the conversation a little bit in a way that I really think is important."
With "Fascinomas," Cahill explored the "macro and micro cosmos" of microscopic images of the body. "It becomes its own universe," she says. The human body is a persistent source of curiosity in Cahill's work. "You can see in [the works] a kind of imagery that might conjure up the viscera of the body, innards, guts, that sort of stuff, but modified in a way." The natural world, particularly that which exists in Southern California, affects her work as well. Cahill, who is from Boston, but has lived in Los Angeles since 1996, discusses the forces of nature that are regular part of life here. She juxtaposes the "lush landscape" that pops up across region mixed with the droughts and fires that plague it. She mentions seeing photo after photo of "insane sunsets" on Instagram and Facebook. We talk about the inconsistencies of weather. How one January will be marked by storms and another, like this one, by sunshine. "It's that blistering, blinding, migraine light on your windshield as you're driving," she remarks.
"We have all of this drama in our landscape," says Cahill. So to does her art. In her Virgil series, shades of graphite gray swirl like a tempest. At times, the markings form giant waves that appear near-ready to crash on sand, prepared to sweep up the surrounding world in the process. " I think that they're really interested in tension," Cahill says of her work. "They're operating in this very gray area in between and among and constantly being tugged in one direction and then another. They're not in stasis."
In so many instances, drawing represents the earliest stages of a work of art. They are the often the first steps that children and teens take before realizing that art is their passion. They are sketches, studies and plans that lead to other, final products. For Cahill, though, the drawing is something else. "I feel like these are every bit as finished as a painting, a video, as any other, as a sculpture. They are physical," she says. "They require all of the same planning and labor that those other art products or objects require as well."
Cahill's passion for drawing is evident. "It's sort of like breathing," she says.
"It wouldn't occur to me to use these for something else, as a study. These are the pieces," Cahill adds. "That feels exciting to me, to focus exclusively on drawing."