El Anatsui (review)
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reviews© 2010 by Nka Publications Journal of Contemporary African Art• 27• Fall 2010 120 • Nka El Anatsui Jack Shainman Gallery, New York February 10 – March 13, 2010 In the past decade or so, the Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui has focused on exploring the possibilities of stitched “cloth” made from recycled liquor-­ bottle caps. Any engagement with this work, which is usually large and hung on walls, is bound to fall almost immediately into a series of metaphorical substitutions. The “meaning ” of the pieces is deferred, and the viewer’s first reaction is to locate visual cognates. Standing in front of recent Anatsui “sculptures” (as he calls them), one is reminded of other materials: woven cloth, printed cloth, chain mail, mosaic, brick facade, architectural integuments, tapestry, pointillist paintings, fin de siècle Viennese art, road maps, atlases, animal hides, and so on. The sculptures are changing from one thing to the other swiftly and smoothly. The spectacular recent exhibition at the Jack Shainman Gallery came hard on the heels of a similar show, Zebra Crossing, at the same venue two years ago. In that time, Anatsui’s considerable reputation has grown — ­ he has had shows at the Smithsonian Institution ’s National Museum of African Art, and his works have been acquired by the Metropolitan Museum, among others — ­ and he is now undoubtedly an international art star of the first rank. For this reason the discussion of his work is now also tied up with his “overnight” success. There seem to be two critical camps where Anatsui is concerned: those who recognize that this success has been decades in the making — ­ Anatsui has been exhibiting actively since the early 1970s — ­ and contextualize the recent work as part of a coherent oeuvre, and those whose interest is almost exclusively in the sensational metal pieces he has made since 1999, who limit their interest to the Anatsui the world “discovered” following the presentation of Dusasa I and Dusasa II at the Venice Biennale in 2007. Although the latter view can hardly be credited, it would perhaps to be churlish to overlook its one vital insight: that these recent works do mark a significant shift of direction in Anatsui’s artistic practice. The shift is not in technique per se, since the “repair and remix” approach has been integral to his work through the years; nor is it simply a matter of media , as the move from wood to clay to metal can be seen as a kind of natural progression, a continuing elaboration of the project of sourcing his artistic materials from his immediate environment and favoring discarded or overlooked material over expensive ones. Rather, the shift is a matter of aesthetics. One of the most suggestive ironies of the recent work is that these materials  — ­ the mass-­ produced detritus of consumption in an industrialized context  — ­ are arguably cheaper and less inherently valuable than, say, wood or earth, which at least have the argument of “authenticity” in their favor . Discarded foil is simply trash. Yet the works in this exhibition, pieces like Intermittent Signals, Depletion, and Anonymous Creature, are beautiful, and their beauty cannot easily be gainsaid or elided. Beauty is a term that causes some critical discomfort, with good reason, but the concept is very much at issue here. By transforming the ersatz luxury of glittering gold-­ colored bottleneck wrappers and silvery bottle caps into a quite different kind of luxury, Anatsui manages to pull off what is probably the most impressive visual coup of his career, given the chasm between raw material and finished product. That the genuine grandeur of the art pieces stems from precisely El Anatsui, Awu, 2009. Aluminum and copper wire, 198 × 300 in. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York Onafuwa Nka • 121 the same optics and substances as the sham grandeur of the bottle caps is of no disadvantage. At a distance, all the viewer sees is a sublime and beautiful work. Close up, the source material is obvious, but even this does not spoil the effect, as the caps and foils have been worked into repeating modules that have been intricately and expertly joined with copper wire. The labor in the pieces is intense...


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