Nathan Luce’s ‘Graven Images’ is complex and full of layers

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There is nothing morbid about Nate Luce’s fascinating exhibition, “Graven Images,” at the Chilmark library. While his theme is serious, the art is curious, evocative, and can sometimes tickle your fancy.

Walking into the gallery there is a row of marching concave papier-mâché, irregularly protruding images of varying sizes, some whose visual reference seems totally allusive while others seem more obviously referential. Luce uses swathes of primarily opaque pastel colors, sometimes adding areas of small repetitive patterning or black descriptive lines. You can see the latter in “Patch Dad,” a large face-shape “mask” with a vaguely skin-colored pinkish background, lighter pink brushstroke shapes dotting the entire surface, and what looks like a black eye patch.

Without knowing anything about it, I commented that it seemed pirate-like, which given that Luce’s family goes back for generations on the Vineyard, made some kind of sense to me. Luce responded, “The pirate is a totally appropriate association, but unintentional. When my dad met my mom, he was wearing an eye patch, as he had allegedly been blinded in one eye by a poisoned Schlitz. Also, the reason I said the pirate reference association is appropriate is that many of the images in the show come from my dreams, which I’ve been keeping track of and trying to dive into for the last couple of years. There are lots of maritime themes in my dreams, and I’ve realized that they’re symbols for this paternal lineage, and masculinity in general. It’s been incredible seeing the complex and hilarious ways my subconscious acts, pirate dad being an example.”

The show’s title, “Graven Images,” has layers of complex meaning and references. Luce writes in his artist statement, “Taking the title from a seminal study of early New England gravestone art, this show of painted papier-mâché forms is a collection of imaginary memorials … It’s an attempt at the impossible task of reconnecting a broken chain.”

I asked Luce to elaborate on what he meant. “My grandfather was very proud of my family’s Island lineage, and traced our connection to the first Luce settler on Martha’s Vineyard, now 11 generations back,” Luce said. “My father pushed back against this, though (whether consciously or not), and my brother and I were born in central Connecticut, where my mother’s family is from. I grew up coming here largely in the summers to do the typical vacation stuff and to visit my extended family. So in one sense, that’s the broken chain; I wasn’t born here, I’m not a native, I’ll never really belong. I come from a family of sailors, but nobody on that side of the family ever took me out on the water. Nobody ever taught me how to fish.”

Luce continued, “In another sense it’s about the broken chain of masculinity. My parents got divorced when I was 2, and I only spent intermittent time with my dad; I never did the traditional father-son activities. I was largely raised by women, my mother and my grandmother. That was great in many ways, but also challenging in ways that I’m only coming to terms with now. So that’s part of the work, but also part of what I’ve been up to for the last few years, moving back here. Maybe by surfing the same break that my dad surfed as a kid, by going oystering in the same ponds my family has for 300 years, I can magically give myself those experiences that I never had as a young person. Hang out with the ghostly Luce family, even if I’m all by myself.”

I told Luce that the show’s title at first seems to have a serious “death” association; however, I found the work quite inviting, lighthearted, and even humorous. I asked him about his intent: What is it that he wants viewers to come away with overall? “The two pieces titled ‘Graven Image’ are renditions of actual old Colonial New England tombstones, taken from the book ‘Graven Images.’ So, in that sense [the show’s title] seemed too easy; a bad pun … But I also like the tension between the name and the work itself; I think it’s funny,” Luce told me. “Also, you know, that’s one of the Ten Commandments: ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.’ Which is what I’m doing.”

There is one piece in the show whose titled baffled me, because it seemed so different from the others. “Two Volvos” stood out because it is painted half in solid black and half in solid gold, which deviates from the pastel colors of the other pieces. “These are the colors of two meaningful Volvo wagons from my life,” Luce explained. ”Some of my strongest memories from childhood are riding in the back of my dad’s station wagon, snoozing while he smoked cigarettes and listened to “Prairie Home Companion.” I spent a lot of time riding in the back on the way to and from his house.”

Because his works have such a material presence, I asked Luce about how they were made, and if he determines what they will look like ahead of time.

“These are constructed with a chicken-wire armature, and several layers of papier-mâché on top of them. I have to give credit to my fabricator Milo Silva, who’s a material genius. Basically, if you’re at the show, the flimsier constructions are mine, and the really solid-looking ones he put together,” Luce explained. “I’m not sure what I want them to look like ahead of time; I enjoy the random nature both of the kind of clunkiness of the material, and then painting on irregular surfaces, and I let the shape help dictate what the image is going to be … The surface cracks and changes over time, which fits in with the idea of crumbling memories.”

“Nathan Luce: Graven Images” exhibition runs until Feb. 1, and there is a reception on Saturday, Jan. 26, at 3 pm at the Chilmark library.