Within the realm of artistic genres, the area of sculpture has perhaps become the most elastic in definition. Installation is sculpture. Performance is sculpture. Assemblage is sculpture. For many the word still evokes the traditional figurative carvings of Michelangelo or the rounded bronze castings of Henry Moore, but ultimately the term is endlessly pliable. For New York-based artist Arlene Shechet, sculpture is about action as well as form, about painterly experimentation as well as material. Her abstract, textural work is on view now at the Institute of Contemporary Art in a comprehensive retrospective that has introduced me to her art for the first time.
With large-scale paintings that seemingly ooze innards and self-portraits brushed with racial signifiers, Brazilian artist Adriana Varejão does not hold anything back. Her works offer a pointed commentary on contemporary race relations by referencing colorism, colonialism, co-mingled cultures, and cannibalism. The latter is the unifying theme of the artist’s first US solo exhibition, curated by Anna Stothart, though she and Varejão prefer the term “anthropophagy”- coined by Brazilian modernist poet Oswald de Andrade to describe the assimilation (“devouring”) of European culture by native Brazilians as a means of surviving during the colonial period.
The instinct to collect may be a basic part of human nature; we acquire and amass and stockpile a variety of things, be it nostalgic keepsakes, artistic treasures, emergency snacks, or cherished memories. Parents hold on to their children’s baby teeth, bibliophiles fill their houses with books, sports fans hunt down memorabilia from their favorite teams; my own mother dutifully collected Longaberger baskets for a good ten years. I myself collect all manner of things, often to the level of hoarding, but that is a discussion for another day. Perhaps this shared tendency is why the work of Joseph Cornell strikes a chord within so many, as I have yet to meet anyone who dislikes his thoughtful and intricate assemblages of found objects.
Not only have the MFA’s ever-changing contemporary galleries become much more inclusive of women and people of color, but the special exhibitions have been far from safe in their choices of artist and theme- usually foregoing big names in favor of exposure for international artists who are less known in the US. They’ve had Israeli photographer Ori Gersht, experimental ceramists, Iranian women photographers, political artists from Latin America, and now, Shinique Smith, an inventive and multi-talented black artist whose works makes an impact in both scale and material. Pulling from a range of graphic references, Smith has forged a distinctive style through her incorporation of lowbrow textiles, sweeping gestures, and collage elements in a variety of works.
Combining diverse artistic approaches–including ink drawing, collage, installation, painting, and animation–and commenting slyly on race, gender, colonialism, and sexuality in her subject matter, Wangechi Mutu has always most attracted me with her work’s sickly beauty. There’s something so eye-catching yet simultaneously upsetting about her mixed-media compositions, they force viewers to look first for pleasure and then again for meaning. Born in Nairobi, Kenya, and educated at Cooper Union and Yale University, Mutu has been exhibiting since the late 90s but seems to be gaining more and more recognition in recent years, with a major solo museum exhibition that is ending its national tour at Northwestern University this fall.