“Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui” (open through August 4) is a mid-career survey of the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui. No intellectual ambiguity masks the curatorial agenda here. As the title suggests Mr. Anatsui’s works stand confidently and free from posturing. His output falls into two distinct categories: the large metallic tapestry works and the smaller, carved wooden assemblage paintings. He is known more for the former; their novelty as objects heightens their allure. They represent Anatsui around the world.
El Anatsui makes a point of saying during a video segment included in the exhibition that “the artist is not a dictator.” The clip shows him in his studio directing assistants as they link together smaller segments of the chainmail-esque material. These draped pieces, made from the flattened tin caps of discarded liquor bottles, were initially inspired by a chance find outside a distillery in Nigeria. It so happens that these fit an established art world profile for heroic sized works crafted individually from a unique material. In Mr. Anatsui’s case he has done this with poetic inventiveness and attention to detail. On their own each work speaks to a kind of authenticity that very aptly describes the opulence, strife, labor, and luxury found in post-colonial Africa.
I would argue that although these pieces are suffused with political intensity, they are not politicized. Mr. Anatsui is not a dictator and nor does he simply utilize the luxury of abundant labor like some of his first world contemporaries. Among artists who manage large studio productions he is a creative mobilizer, providing opportunity as much as he seeks it; sharing an affinity with Ai Wei Wei more than Damien Hirst.
The namesake artwork of the show is “Gravity and Grace,” is a 36 foot long hanging wall piece that is among his largest to date. Colors blossom across the surface from silver to yellow to red, as black lines whose meaning or origin remain unknown swim in the metallic field. The bottle caps shine independently and in concert they grow to become something like sails made from shimmering fish scales. Bound only with an abstract grammar, “Gravity and Grace” is a tapestry, a painting, and a map. Like many of his wall pieces this one is moments or possibly even seconds away from springing into animated life. We as viewers want to know: what are the blaring red and yellow hotspots? What do they measure? What fuels such urgent rhythms? We don’t have the privilege to understand every permutation, so these foreign geometries persist as ciphered veils. To again use the artists’ self-descriptive vocabulary, we remain ‘engaged outsiders.’
After a while the tapestry works are interesting more in an educational way than aesthetic. When shown together these works, beautiful and authentic as they are, remind us of the fitting semantic distinction between production and creation; and how the standard formula of multiplying an object to fill a gallery overpowers creativity. Don’t get me wrong, they are charming and poetic, clearly created under very finely tuned aesthetic direction. Although I can appreciate the tedious work done by his assistants to create many large works they seem to be made to the precise measurements of a large gallery but stopping short of the vastness I had hoped for.
His aforementioned wood paintings are the true gems of the exhibition. Cut, carved, and painted, the parallel vertical strips of wood can be arranged in infinite variations, embodying Mr. Anatsui’s concept of ‘nonfixed form.’ In works like ‘Conspirators’ we see El Anatsui the man, not El Anatsui the wizard. Each gouge and creative decision is witnessed and can be connected with; here creation and not production reigns. To produce them en masse would destroy their slow unraveling and short circuit their transcendence.
This survey sheds light onto a predicament global art culture that involves the artists, the producers and the viewers. Commercial interests obviously dictate much of global art culture, and with that the line between what audiences hope for and what we’ve come to expect of art has become very blurry. A challenge grows inside this reality, to artists and producers to surpass expectations and stay creative. An acknowledgement needs to be made here: a survey show is a difficult one to pull off. How can an artist’s chronology and artistic development be adequately represented and exhibited in a way that simultaneously sidesteps the threats of misunderstanding and apathy?
This show creates a context that is surprisingly difficult to navigate; it is a trail that winds back and forth through the mire of self-reflection and lofty aesthetic transcendence. Mr. Anatsui’s work is easy on the eyes. At its worst, it fails to impress and at its best it soars above expectation.
Born in 1944 in Anyako, Ghana, El Anatsui has lived and worked in Nigeria since 1978. After he received a BA and a postgraduate degree from the University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana, he was a professor of fine arts at the University of Nigeria. His work is included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, the Centre Pompidou, the Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum Kunstpalast, and the de Young Museum. He participated in the Venice Biennale in 1990 and 2007, to considerable global acclaim. A version of Gravity and Grace toured Japan in 2010–2011 under a different title.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jonathan Beer is a New York-based artist and writer. He began to write critically in 2010 while attending the New York Academy of Art for his MFA in Painting. His paintings have been exhibited at Kathleen Cullen Fine Arts, Flowers Gallery, Boltax Gallery and Sotheby’s in New York. Jon is also a contributing writer for The Brooklyn Rail, ArtWrit and for Art Observed.