Even if we rue dualism as an intellectual bane, we still rely upon it. We live in a red state or a blue state. If we're not millionaires, we're part of the 99 percent masses. In her first major show in the U.S., Wangechi Mutu reveals the inherent violence in oppositional thinking, beginning this week at the Nasher Museum of Art.
Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey presents many of the large-scale collages that the Kenya-born, Brooklyn-based artist is known for, while also including video, sculpture and installation that shows the breadth of her oeuvre. Much of Mutu's imagery, at first look, is horrific. Although spectacularly colorful and wrought, bodies are distended, ripped, vomiting, contorted. The moments that Mutu captures are almost always violent. It's like Kara Walker with the lights on.
"There are things that I do that are often mysterious to me," Mutu says after climbing down from the scaffolding beneath a commissioned wall drawing at the exhibition's entrance. "I have a lot of respect for intuition and a process-oriented approach to the work. I mean, I have specific, concrete ideas often, but if things guide me I don't try to question too much the logic or lack of logic in what I'm doing."
Mutu was speaking earlier this month, while in Durham to oversee the installation of her show. This week, she'll return for a series of events, including the opening night preview reception Wednesday, March 20, at 7 p.m.
From all Mutu's gradations, contradictions and transformations you can abstract a basic ideology—pacifism and environmentalism—but she's never didactic. Neither is Mutu reductive; rather, she takes a naturalist's long view. Instead of presenting a ruined landscape, she depicts the survival cycle of consumption and elimination. Rather than showing a battleground tableau, she shows how violence is always both destructive and transformative, and how its spectacle can be both horrible and beautiful.
We've dropped our jaws at the intuitive power of Mutu's work before—the 2011 30 Americans show at the North Carolina Museum of Art featured an overpowering Mutu collage in its opening alcove. The artist list of the Nasher's simultaneous Building The Contemporary Collection: Five Years Of Acquisitions had a lot of overlap, reflecting curator Trevor Schoonmaker's passion for contemporary African diasporic work.
Schoonmaker has put together another winner, this time with legs. A Fantastic Journey will travel to the Brooklyn Museum of Art in September and to the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami and the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University next year. Expect this show to do for Mutu what prescient Nasher shows have done for the careers of Barkley Hendricks and Mark Bradford.
After this exhibition tours, the art world will have to drop the modifier "collage artist" from Mutu's name. Along with 16 medium-to large-scale collages and a hybrid wall drawing, the show contains two sculptural installation works, three videos and several vitrines of sketchbook drawings duplicated in artist's prints. Also, a suite of 13 smaller collage portraits is connected by lines into a "Family Tree" (2013). These other media show the artist pushing herself into the third dimension, placing her collages within a larger diagrammatical frame. A Fantastic Journey shows you where Mutu has gone as well as the territory ahead of her.
Collage is still Mutu's basic impulse, though, and it's thrilling to get to know her vocabulary of imagery from up close. There are five large collages, each comprised of two panels. Your instinct is to stand back from them to take in the overall composition, but the revelation of this show is the opportunity to approach to within a foot to see Mutu's component imagery and integrative eye.
From a distance of 10 feet or so, you'll see that one large collage, "Your Story My Curse" (2006) presents a scene with three figures. Half-crouched, one carries another awkwardly upon its back, emitting tendrils from its rear end that mingle with tendrils coming out of the mouth of a third, smaller figure approaching on bird legs from behind. Immense at 101.5 inches by 109 inches, it's inscrutable: an assault or an insult, or something unknowable.
Once you approach, however, details in the collage offer clues that send interpretation in all directions. The backside of the crouched figure has the blossoming image of a banana peel upon it. It's a hilarious touch, in contrast to the revolting splay of frog bodies flying out of the mouth of the trailing figure. But then what's to be made of the phallic idol in the trailing figure's hand? Both funny and deadly, it's a rearing cobra topped by a wooden fertility figurine, its breasts doubling as testes.
The collages combine ink and paint with vinyl contact paper and magazine clippings on Mylar. Generally, the torsos and limbs are filled in with ink and paint, and tightly integrated images of parts of African animals and motorcycles—their candy-colorful fuselages and chrome exhaust systems and wheels—form facial and gestural details. Paint spatters and vinyl tendrils shoot out of orifices and wounds with directional force.
You may feel suspicious of yourself as you try to discern Mutu's narratives. I found my gender preconceptions implicated as I tried to figure out whether figures were male, female or other.
"It's not exactly clear, and it shouldn't be," Mutu says. "I think we are really overconfident about assigning gender specificity based on biology and physical appearance and also based on whatever religious, traditional or cultural biases we have about what is female, what is male.
"In this kind of mythological fantasy world, the idea is to imagine that if femaleness is the burden that you are given, what would you transform into?"
What we generally call "animal instincts" inform every still or moving image in the show. Two of Mutu's videos deal specifically with hunger and gluttony. In "Eat Cake" (2012), the artist devours a cake by the handful, camped in the roots of a tree. It's a reminder that we humans pretend we aren't animals anymore, which exaggerates our survival urges into fantastic systems.
One of these systems is gradually revealed over the course of the computer-animated, eight-minute video work "The End of Eating Everything." The Nasher commissioned this new collaboration with recording artist Santigold, and the piece was still in flux the week before the exhibition's opening (that's a working title as of this writing). Revealed over the course of a long pullback of the camera, this system eventually both consumes and transcends itself.
Centered amid all this visual and narrative intensity, the installation "Suspended Play Time" (2008) provides a space for stillness and contemplation and, thus, brings the exhibition together. Taking a substantial area of the front gallery, approximately 100 black plastic spheres swathed into shape with twine hang from golden threads just above the floor. Mutu picks up on the resourcefulness of African kids who make soccer balls out of whatever's at hand—trash bags and string. The simplicity of these objects offers relief from the swarming multiplicity of all other work in the show. It's the place one comes home to after a fantastic journey.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Horror, beauty and transcendence."