KINDERHOOK, NY — The School, Jack Shainman’s splendid gallery in Kinderhook, NY, is about to blow its own roof off. The power of the El Anatsui retrospective there is palpable and deeply moving. The exhibition shows works reaching back from the 1970s to 2014. Included are works in clay, photography, drawings wood, and of course the large, changable sculptures made from discarded aluminum bands and bottle caps that have propelled Anatsui into the art world stratosphere. The inclusion of pieces made of clay and the works on paper are particularly revealing as they evidence the continuum of Anatsui’s aesthetic interests.
But first a word about the building: In this exhibition, the installation in the former Martin Van Buren High School built in 1929 is an integral part of the experience. The gallery is a wonderful architectural marriage of stunning white spaces, lit by banks of surprisingly sympathetic fluorescent lights, and rooms that echo with the ghost of the building’s past. The architecture of the building is significant both in how the curatorial installation decisions that were made and to the experience of the artwork. Anatsui’s works arrive with very little installation instructions, so it is up to the discretion of the curator, who will decide how to bend and shape the pieces. They are forever mutable, and that is part of their power. Anatsui’s work is never static, always open and willing to change. At The School, the building and Jack Shaiman have become collaborators, if you will, in our perception of the works.
An old girls bathroom on the second floor has been left, more or less in a state of elegant decay. Bits and pieces of pink paint remain on rough cement and plaster walls. Shades of grey, white, pink, and buff dominate the room. A solitary window allows natural light to flood the space. And hanging on one entire wall is a new El Anatsui piece made of old newspaper printing plates. Entitled “Metas I” (2014), the work has a new and subtle color palette. The work is mostly grey, in contrast to the very brightly colored works for which Anatsui is well known. The metal has been cut into small squares and threaded together with copper wire, the soft grey of the printing plates flecked with hits of color and bits of half recognizable words. The piece moves dimensionally, bent so that it both hugs and leaves the wall, existing as both a painting and sculpture. Deliberate open spaces in the hanging allow the pink, plaster, and cement wall to show through, becoming a part of the piece. The ways in which the wall colors and shapes relate to the artwork is both calculated and brilliant serendipity. The artwork and the wall dance together in genuine poetry.
There are several other rooms in the gallery where this architecture of the past is a perfect complement to Anatsui’s work. The boys bathroom (the walls were once blue, of course) houses a single tall figure fabricated out of found metal and wood. Entitled “Lady In Frenzy” (1999), this striding figure has been caught as if by the flash of a camera as she runs from the room.
There is no disconnect here between the pieces installed in these un-renovated rooms and those installed in the pristine cool white spaces of the rest of the building. It all works. In the contemporary spaces, the ceramic and carved wood pieces create a different type of contrast with their surroundings.
Anatsui’s newest pieces in the exhibition show him at a point of transcendence in his use of both the materials and ideas that have been a hallmark of his mature work. The aluminum and zinc newspaper printing plates have a dulled sheen to them. The metal has been fashioned into bent squares about two inches in size. This bent squares and their very subtle silver-grey allow light to define the sculptural forms of the Meta pieces more than in past work. They feel somewhat related to minimalist painting, the square patterning of the metal feels more regularly rhythmic than some of the earlier works. They are as much painting as sculpture. All of the pieces in the Metas series exhibit this highly refined and delicate sense of form and light. At the same time the very nature of their fabrication by hand and the eccentricity of the materials (found metal and copper wire) ties these pieces both to Anatsui’s entire body of work, but also to the traditions of materiality and handwork that tie him to his artistic roots in Africa.
In the new pieces in which Anatsui is using color and shiny metal, similar to his past works, the visual narrative feels fresh and new. “Ascension” (2014) and “Dissolving Dreams” (2014) hanging in the same room use gold and silver as their primary colors. There is a pleasingly sharp difference between the brilliance of the silver and the duller sheen of the gold. Using contrasting toned aluminum bands, Anatsui snakes the color through, creating deliberate, abstracted narratives.
As always with Anatsui’s work, these pieces undulate on the wall, creating shadows, depth, and dimensionality that are always arresting. In addition to their visual beauty there is a pulse, a movement to Anatsui’s work. They feel very alive. The spaces between the art and the wall, the spaces between the art and the viewer, the floor, the ceiling are as important as the art itself. His willingness and desire to allow the curators and the spaces to to affect change to his artwork makes for passionate spatial relationships. The very bottom of “Stressed World” (2011) ever so gently brushes the floor, just a whisper of contact — it’s a casually graceful gesture that acknowledges the possibility of blurring the boundaries between art and the space it inhabits.
One of the strengths of this show is that includes so many early and rarely seen pieces. Carved figurative works from the 1980s, like “Devotees”(1987)and “Group Photo”(1987) are reminders of where El Anatsui was artistically 30 years ago and adds depth to our understanding of the evolution of his work. These two carved wood pieces each consist of a group of abbreviated figures — each is an abstracted shape that reads as a torso and a second one that reads as a head.
The ten individual figures that make up the piece “Devotees” (1987) are bunched tightly together, their bulbous heads morphing into long thick necks that rest on top of “shoulders.” Elegantly shaped wooden forms with very little detail, these are figures distilled to their visual essence. Facing in different directions, they all share eyes that have a vacant stare and slack mouths. Anatsui’s comment, perhaps, on those who are unquestioning followers of a religion or political movement.
“Group Photo” (1987) is a much larger group of figures, thirty-five in total. They are more varied and detailed in surface carving, and each is individualized, with facial expressions and carving on the torsos that identify them as the opposite of the “devotees.” Each is completely individual, and massed altogether they form a family or clan. The point is that although they are many, they never lose their identity in the group. In this exhibition the gallery has chosen, with the artist’s permission, to group them in niches that rise high up onto a stark white wall in the white-box section of the building.
Both “Devotees” and “Group Photo” establish Anatsui’s early interest in the power of repetition and its relationship to the whole. The impressive continuum of Anatsui’s development is on full display, from a rhythmic cadence of wooden figures in the 1980s, to the increasingly more ambitious projects made of multi-colored found metal in the 2000s, to the gorgeous tableau of silver-grey printing plates of his recent work. It is the marriage of rhythm, repetition, and constant evolution that informs not only individual pieces, but the body of Anatsui’s work as a whole.
Locals refer to “The School,” Jack Shainman’s 30,000 square foot gallery space as “The Museum.” After visiting the El Anatsui retrospective, I can fully understand why. The artworks and the space that seems to cradle and nurture them combine to delight the eye and challenge us in a way most unusual for a more conventional gallery space.
El Anatsui: Five Decades at the Jack Shainman’s The School (25 Broad Street, Kinderhook, NY) continues until September 26.