Balancing What's Said and Not Said

Sometimes, the idea of an artist’s work draws me far more than the look of it. Even though I might like the intent, I feel bored or put off when viewing it.  In other cases, the paintings and sculptures immediately captivate me, but when I read the artist’s or gallery’s descriptions, I think, “Really?”  The explanations seem ponderously intellectual or so obscure that I can’t relate them to what I’m seeing.

For me, the Wangechi Mutu show at the Nasher Museum is a refreshing change of pace.  Visually, Mutu’s paintings are glorious and provocative, and through them she explores a variety of social and political themes.  The concepts are not brand-new, but her paintings and short films deliver with such vibrancy and power that the work measures up to them.  Now, at this point, I should confess that I don’t have an art history background. I simply have a passion for the visual dialectic.  I like what’s beautiful, but mostly, I gravitate towards what surprises me, what sparks my thoughts and feelings. I want the visceral experience as well as the chance to question my assumptions.

Many, if not most, of Mutu’s works feature women, and they are fabulous— extraordinary and fable-like.  Using a combination of painted forms and magazine cutouts, she’s created figures that sprout motorcycles and machine parts from sinuous limbs, evoking images of women who are at once creepy, sexy, and powerful.  In this illusionary world, they act out a rebellion against both European domination and male appetites.  Despite the serious subject matter, Mutu has a clever sense of humor, offering multiple interpretations of “A Little Thought for All Y’all Who’re Thinking of Beating Around the Bush.”  In this one, a woman rides a snake she’s beheaded, and there’s a sense of triumph and glee.

In another painting/collage piece, “Misguided Little Unforgivable Hierarchies,” Mutu depicts a human triangle.  At the top, a small creature (somehow malevolent, animal, and male) appears to be driving this human pyramid.  The figure it rides is clearly female and Gumby-like in her accommodating physical stance.  At the bottom: another female.  Very full-figured, she carries the others and clearly has the strength to do it.  Although the most put-upon, she has the fortitude to endure.

For me, the most disturbing piece in the exhibition was “Eat Cake”—a short video installation.  Although I’m not typically drawn to this art form, I found it mesmerizing even while I felt disgusted.  In the 12-minute black-and-white, we see Mutu dressed for a party but sitting in the woods in a high backed wooden chair.  Apparently, this is a private fête, and she regally sips from a cup as she surveys her surroundings.  Oddly, she sprinkles some of the liquid on the ground, apparently indifferent to the waste and the drink itself.  Soon after, she unveils a three-tiered chocolate cake and proceeds to devour it with her hands.  Using her fingers and one-inch long white nails, she grabs hunks of chocolate cake and shoves them in her mouth in a manner both proprietary and carnal.  She seems unconcerned as she capriciously spits out some bites, tossing them to the side.  She simply takes another chunk of chocolate to her mouth, chews, and swallows. Eventually, she consumes the entire cake, but along the way, she takes breaks, absentmindedly reshaping the mass into a dome with her hands.  It’s like a child who plays with mud or wet sand.  Clearly, this woman thinks of food as a possession more than a source of nourishment.  She trusts that there will always be more and feels no reason to conserve it.  I left the video with a heightened sense of our gluttonous, wasteful Western world.

There’s plenty more to see in this show, and I’ll leave others to seek it out.  For me, the exhibition more than lived up to my hopes.  It revitalized my enthusiasm for contemporary art as well my appreciation of the Nasher.