In the last few years, artist Wangechi Mutu’s bronze sculptural work has been a topic of obsession for art types who are enthralled by her hybrid visions, which capture the fantastical garden she’s been cultivating in her imagination. While I always found her drawing and other two-dimensional work visually captivating, particularly when you get into the weeds of the composition, color, and lines — often approaching poetry in its tendrils of visual explosions and elegant poise — her recent sculptures really stand apart, as they stretch across genres and incubate form in the petri dish of her studio. In the current New Museum exhibition, curated by Margot Norton and Vivian Crockett with Ian Wallace, it is her sculptures that dominate the show, and when they’re given the proper context and room to breathe, they will steal your heart and mind.
The commercial gallery-like spaces of this Silicon Valley-wannabe institution — which I like to call the neoliberal dream factory of contemporary art for its start-up-like obsession with corporatization and elite capture — aren’t exactly a perfect frame or setting for the artist’s more earthy, holistic, and elaborate visions of female and African dignity and power, which fill every floor of the New Museum.
Yet her small “Sisters” (2019) is a great example of how she can achieve sophisticated spatial dynamics using very little, and her attention to detail and scale is extraordinary. “The Seated I” (2019), which was part of her excellent Metropolitan Museum facade commission, and “Crocodylus” (2020) demonstrate her mastery of large sculptural forms. Many of her sculptures ignite the imagination in curious ways with their emotionless faces, armor-like shells, and evocation of natural, almost vegetal forms. “Crocodylus” makes me curious about what would’ve happened if the ancient Sumerians sculpted deities while on LSD, while “MamaRay” (2020) could look right at home at a sci-fi convention.
A few works fall a little short, mostly because of the curation. Let me explain: “Shavasana I” (2019) looks like an interesting idea gone wrong, as if the Wicked Witch of the East ended up under a yoga mat rather than Dorothy’s house. While many of Mutu’s sculptures walk a line between genres that can be invigorating, here the work feels stark and borderline cheesy. Placing it in the museum’s rooftop space doesn’t help; isolating the dark sculpture in the very white space makes it come across like a corporate or oligarch trophy — something the rest of the exhibition mostly avoids. And then there’s “Poems by my Great Grandmother I” (2017), which looks orphaned in the museum’s weird stairway alcove — when I saw the same work at Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town in 2018, it made much more sense, placed in dialogue with other works in a more direct manner. Here, it looks like an unfinished piece you might come across in an artist’s studio.
There were other times I also felt the work looked better elsewhere. For instance, the video work “The End of carrying All” (2015) looks somewhat strange, placed against the wall in a manner that flattens the work and makes it more drawing-like. When the same work was on display at the Venice Biennale’s central exhibition in 2015, there was more intimacy to the placement, while the video took on its own sculptural presence as it was gently separated from the wall. That display in Venice was particularly exciting in its juxtaposition with “She’s got the whole world in her” (2015), which echoed the themes in the animation more effectively — not to mention that the piece plays a foundational role in her work as the first large sculpture she created by pulping old paper from her studio, something she has since continued. I’m not sure “The Glider” (2021) has the same effect in this context, even if it’s a mysterious form that worms its way into your head.
Mutu’s drawings and collages create their own cosmology. Encountering the art again and again, it occurs to me that while her drawings have a tendency to break things apart, her sculptures synthesize those ideas into objects that are almost archaeological in feeling, appearing as if they were unearthed and cleaned for display. (A number of the sculptures are made from the paper that she once collaged, so there is a literal coming together of those ideas and images.) What unifies the art is the dialogue between various pieces, as well as the general notion that the artist is wrestling with something bigger within these concurrent bodies of work. There’s an itchy feeling I get from some of the 2D work, which emerges, I think, from what I read as her own discomfort with stillness and the expected. When I learned that her mother was a nurse, often treating tropical diseases, I could better understand how at a young age she saw the body as full of surprises and unexpected abilities (she has mentioned seeing the images of skin diseases in her mother’s medical books). She’s grafted that sense of wonder effectively to all her work that grapples with human forms — our bodies are just another natural container from which possibilities spring eternal.
In its final week, the exhibition is one of the standout solo exhibitions in town — I’d argue the Jaune Quick-to-See Smith retrospective at the Whitney Museum and the Juan de Pareja show at the Metropolitan Museum are the others. As Mutu is creating some of the most exciting art anywhere, I’d encourage you to see it in person. And if you get a chance, please take a moment to spend some time with her various “basket” works, like “Nywele,” “Nyoka,” “Heads in a Basket,” or “Musa” (all 2021 or 2022), and stare into them as you’re seeing the future of art.
Wangechi Mutu: Intertwined continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through June 4. The exhibition was curated by Margot Norton and Vivian Crockett with Ian Wallace.