Tag: 2000s

Exhibitions: “Arlene Shechet: All at Once” at ICA Boston

shechet-IsandIsNot-2011Arlene Shechet: Is and Is Not, 2011 (detail). All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

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.

Spread across three galleries, the exhibit’s aesthetic reflects Shechet’s own inclination for playful display tactics. Her more recent abstract sculptures are typically mounted on pedestals of her own making, rendered in wood or brick or plexiglass, and the show’s organizers extended this idea to the entire layout. The first room features a large multi-leveled shelf unit (made by the artist) at its center, with her early forays into Buddhist figures and pottery clustered throughout. The walls are lined with loose architectural drawings of stupas, inspired by her visit to Buddhist monuments in Indonesia. Western artists are drawn to Buddhism and Buddhist imagery for various reasons, sometimes appropriative or ethnocentric; Shechet’s primary interest is in the way Buddhist sculpture was used as a language, as well a way to communicate the concept of transience. The loss of a close friend prompted her to pay more attention to life’s preciousness, and the process of working with plaster allowed her to “maintain a consistent state of awareness in the studio” (Arlene Shechet, 13). The works here are quite varied, combining blue and white pottery, contemplative seated Buddhas, and goopy abstracted messes. Their arrangement forces the viewer to always be moving around the room, taking in first the whole and then, gradually, individual pieces.

shechet-buddharoomArlene Shechet: All At Once installation view at ICA/Boston.

shechet-buddhasArlene Shechet: East Buddha, 1999 (left) and Collective Head, 1996 (right).

shechet-Building-2003-2Arlene Shechet: Building, 2003.

shechet-Building-2003Arlene Shechet: Building, 2003.

shechet-InTheBalance2004Arlene Shechet: selections from In the Balance series, 2004-05.

The second gallery moves into the 21st century, with a deceptively simple sculptural installation titled “Building,” from 2002. A commissioned work for the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, it was put together with students at the University of Washington, who threw different pottery shapes and made molds based on Shechet’s drawings. She stained the molds with black glazes, so that the resulting casts came out with dark exteriors that became progressively lighter as the molds were re-used. The final piece features a large grouping of these pottery forms, cut and stacked and placed at eye-level, resembling a miniature city that literalizes curator Jenelle Porter’s description of Shechet’s work as “equally sculpture and architecture” (Arlene Shechet, 11). The ashen coloring subtly hints to the artist’s experiences as a New Yorker after the 9/11 attacks, evoking imagery of fallen buildings, burnt-out ruins, and urban debris. Alongside Building is a small series of glass sculptures titled In the Balance. As the only offering in glass on view, they stick out as an elegant side-note, with shapes that recall the smaller pottery pieces in Building and a theme related to breath that carries over into future works. To me the appealing aspects of all the works in this section is how they reference traditional craft shapes, but remain completely non-functional.

shechet-ANightOut2011-MyBalzacArlene Shechet: A Night Out, 2011 (left) and My Balzac, 2010 (right).

shechet-LollandAirTime-2006Arlene Shechet: Loll, 2006-07 (left) and Air Time, 2007 (right).

shechet-NowPlaying2015-Tattletale2012Arlene Shechet: Now Playing, 2015 (left) and Tattletale, 2012 (right).

shechet-NoNoise2013-Stories2013Arlene Shechet: No Noise, 2013 (left) and Stories, 2013 (right).

shechet-NotToMention2013-NoMatterWhat2013Arlene Shechet: Not to Mention, 2013 (left – via CFile) and No Matter What, 2013 (right).

shechet-Absolutely2012-Away2012Arlene Shechet: Absolutely, 2014 (left) and Away, 2014 (right).

shechet-ParallelPlay-2012Arlene Shechet: selections from Parallel Play series, 2012-2014.

The meat of the exhibition is in the third gallery, a long stretch of freestanding sculpture that highlights Shechet’s interest in texture, form, and color. Several pieces are inspired by lungs and breath, relating to her father’s death from lung cancer, their lumpy grey shapes inflating and deflating, their random circular orifices painted blood orange. Others are comical, with droopy appendages and colorful splotches. Still others are architectural, or even monumental, with jutting windows and dark loops, leaning every which way like a surreal Tower of Pisa. Most are primarily made of ceramic, and all are placed atop stands of varying material and size, some matching and some contrasting their passengers, some including kiln bricks as a reference to the act of firing clay. The work is remarkable in its totally freeform look, so far from the seemingly meticulously-planned aspect of most carved and molded sculpture. In her process, Shechet drips and stacks, presses and pulls, attacks and retreats, leaving traces of her movements like the strokes of an action painting. Though abstract in both form and title, the sculptures evoke different emotional responses in each viewer, intimate in their tactility, strange and funny and unavoidable in their presence.

In a partially-enclosed wing off the main gallery are several large-scale wall paintings that tie in closely with the freestanding pieces nearby. Their blotchy application of color and thick, three-dimensional shapes reflect the forms found in her sculpture. In fact, the compositions are created by applying molds of different sections of the sculptures to create textured paper, spreading out and flattening her favorite visual motifs so they can be viewed in a new element. The process is detailed in this short Art 21 video, which also offers a glimpse of the pieces on view at the ICA.

shechet-raspberrytwistArlene Shechet: Raspberry Twist, 2012.

ASBreakingtheMold01Arlene Shechet: Dancing Girl with Two Right Feet, 2012. via Arlene Shechet

shechet-artwork-040-split-blockArlene Shechet: Split Block, 2013. via Art 21

The final space, a small enclosed room with black walls, is the most indicative of Shechet’s interest in display, functionally presenting the artist as curator. Here, works from her residency at the celebrated Meissen porcelain studio in Germany are arranged like so many knick-knacks on shelves of varying height and size. She mixes her own uncanny experiments in with actual historical ceramics, highlighting the kind of aesthetic that was treasured in the 18th century–most notably orientalist tropes and delicate courtly figurines. Shechet’s contributions are generally hybrid creations that melt or cut or combine these familiar elements into something new and strange. Disembodied legs pop out of rosebuds, abstract shapes crop up on porcelain plates, vases soften and tip over erratically. It’s an odd, funny little room that invites close looking (though, sadly, no photos) and adds an unexpected historicity to the exhibition as a whole, relating Shechet’s contemporary use of ceramic to its decorative and East Asian origins.

shechet-AndSoAndSoAndSoArlene Shechet: So and So and So and So and So and On and On, 2010.

In conversation with fellow artist Janine Antoni, Shechet says, “One of the reasons I’ve liked working with marginalized materials is that they have a kind of slackness. They give me more opportunity to say things in an unexpected way, or to point out the full range of life rather than a narrower range” (Arlene Shechet, 150). Though her approach to “pointing out the full range of life” is nonspecific, I do feel these works represent a whole person, a whole volume of emotions. They reveal the flaws, the humor, the tragedy, the playfulness, the bizarre, and beauty everyone experiences, though they may ultimately best represent the artist herself.

Sources:

“Arlene Shechet.” Art21. http://www.art21.org/artists/arlene-shechet

Jenelle Porter, et al. Arlene Shechet. Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston and Prestel, 2015.

Exhibitions: Adriana Varejão at ICA Boston

varejao-PolvoPortraitsI-ChinaSeries-2014-detAdriana Varejão: Polvo Portraits I (China Series) (detail), 2014. All photos by the author.

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. In this way, “the cannibal, which had long represented the paradigm of the indigenous savage” is reclaimed, and “the taboo of eating human flesh [is transformed] into a symbol of cultural absorption” (Stothart, 39).

varejao-EntranceFigureI-1997Adriana Varejão: Entrance Figure I, 1997.

varejao-EntranceFigureI-1997-detAdriana Varejão: Entrance Figure I (detail), 1997.

varejao-Carpet-StyleTileworkOnCanvases-1999Adriana Varejão: Carpet-Style Tilework on Canvases, 1999.

Varejão represents this concept both literally and figuratively in a range of media, including large-scale paintings, mixed-media installations, and sculptural tiles. Entrance Figure I, situated in the first room of the exhibition, probably reveals her themes most literally. A classical nude woman stands in the center, gesturing in welcome (referencing popular courtly decorations in Portugal and Brazil). Covered in floral tattoos and holding a spear, she represents an idealized indigenous warrior. Her right hand reveals a shocking scene behind her, a grisly depiction of cannibalism as nude men and women tear into human body parts, cooking them on a large fire. These images themselves are pulled from the illustrations of Flemish printmaker Theodorus de Bry, who illustrated the people of the Americas with incredibly broad strokes, never having traveled there himself. As Stothart notes, in the minds of colonizing Europeans, such images “became validation for forced catechism and cultural oppression” (Stothart, 41). In works like this, Varejão relies on stereotypes of indigenous peoples, long maintained by Western minds (often unconsciously), as well as viewers’ familiarity with omnipresent Greco-Roman motifs. We see a classically beautiful nude, but are thrown off by her allover body tattoos. We see a classically beautiful balustrade setting, but are then repulsed by the intense scene of cannibalism and “savages”. The blue-and-white painted style of this piece and many others is a further reference to colonial ceramic tiles, subverting a domestic tradition into something far more sinister.

My favorite element of Varejão’s work is her penchant for Cronenbergian body horror. Several of her pieces are literally spilling over with fabricated blood and guts, others pucker like human skin. The artist breaks through the facade of harmonious cultivation, of benevolent colonizers, of imposed “civilization.” These nicely painted tiles are falling apart to reveal the human detritus inside, a not-so-subtle reminder of Brazil’s (and all of Latin America’s, really) violent past due to European takeover. In her work, Varejão asserts that there is no hiding that past, even today, for it remains an integral part of Brazil’s cultural identity. Wall with incisions à la Fontana is a canvas that has been slashed as if with a sword or knife, cutting into the painting to expose blood and tissue, an update of the cut canvases of Argentinian modernist Lucio Fontana. Map of Lopo Homem II turns a 16th-century Portuguese map into sutured flesh, with gaping wound torn through the center: a visceral representation of map-making’s benefactor, world conquest, and a nod to the adage, “history is written by the victors” (and of course in most instances in Western history, that means white people). As Federico Rosa points out, in human affairs, “beauty and destruction often have to coexist” (Rosa, “Adriana Varejão: A History of Flesh”).

 

varejao-MapOfLopoHomemII-1992 Adriana Varejão: Map of Lopo Homem II, 1992.

varejao-Folds2-2003 Adriana Varejão: Folds 2, 2003.

varejao-exploratorylaparotomyii Adriana Varejão: Exploratory Laparotomy II, 1996.

varejao-exploratorylaparotomyii2 Adriana Varejão: Exploratory Laparotomy II (detail), 1996.

varejao-WallWithIncisionsALaFontanaHorizontal-2009-11Adriana Varejão: Wall With Incisions a la Fontana-horizontal, 2009.

One gallery is devoted to a third and integral aspect of Varejão’s practice: her exploration of race and colorism. For her recent “Polvo” series, she experiments with skin tone and racial perceptions in both paintings and mixed-media installations. Polvo Oil Colors from 2013 features a collection of paint tubes with labels like “coffee with milk,” “half breed,” and “mostly white,” all descriptors taken from a 1976 census in which Brazilians were able to identify their own race. Having created the paint colors, Varejão then uses these unique racial signifiers in a number of subversive portraits. For Polvo Portraits (Seascape Series), she commissioned a traditional Brazilian artist to paint multiple copies of her portrait, which she then altered using different skin tones so that her face suddenly moved within numerous racial categories. Such works point out the limiting and narrow-minded views of race within contemporary society, views that have carried over from the complex racial hierarchies established by Europeans when conquering South America. The artist challenges her viewers to consider how skin color affects their view of a person, specifically of a woman, silently pushing all of our unconscious prejudices and assumptions about race and ethnicity to the forefront of our looking experience.

In the final room of the show, there are a few paintings taken from a series dedicated to empty tiled rooms, in which Vareão chooses to forgo the sculptural guts for a more subdued composition, merely hinting at unseen acts of violence through stark settings and anonymous blood. The large-scale canvas The Guest perhaps makes the biggest impact of the whole show. Its bright white tiles seem to pop out of the wall, a believable three-dimensionality that invites the viewer into the painted space, only to meet them with a mysterious pool of blood. There is no visible body, no attacker, no weapon, no police tape or clean-up crew, no indication of the titular “guest.” Upon viewing this work, I was immediately reminded of Varejão’s peer Teresa Margolles, whose work Limpieza features a man mopping a palatial floor with the blood and grime of Mexican crime scenes. Margolles is literal and aggressive with her use of human remains to comment on the violence that has become commonplace in her home country; Varejão is similarly confrontational and visceral, but filters her commentary through history and metaphor so that the overall effect is more open-ended. Her presentation is varied in material and style but consistent in its iconography. She captures our attention with her unsettling compositions and forces us to consider why we are unsettled, why we feel discomfort when met with the atrocities of the past and the remnants of colonialism found in the present. Her work is strange and academic and often esoteric, but its full-frontal approach makes an impact regardless of context, and this exhibit is sure to stick with me for a long time.

 

varejao-PolvoOilColors-2013Adriana Varejão: Polvo Oil Colors, 2013.

varejao-PolvoPortraitsI-ChinaSeries-2014Adriana Varejão: Polvo Portraits I (China Series), 2014.

varejao-PolvoPortraitsI-SeascapeSeries-2014Adriana Varejão: Polvo Portraits I (Seascape Series), 2009.

varejao-TheGuest-2005Adriana Varejão: The Guest, 2005.

varejao-ThePerverse-2006Adriana Varejão: The Perverse, 2006.

Sources:

Federico Rosa. “Adriana Varejão: A History of Flesh.” The Culture Trip. http://theculturetrip.com/south-america/brazil/articles/adriana-varej-o-a-history-of-flesh-/

Anna Stothart. Adriana Varejão. Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 2014.

Exhibitions: “Shinique Smith: Bright Matter” at MFA Boston

I visit the Museum of Fine Arts Boston fairly regularly–I’ve seen almost all of their major exhibitions (plus many smaller ones) since I moved here in 2006–and while I respect their vast collections, up-to-date facilities, and significant works in the Impressionist, Japanese, and ancient Egyptian categories, I have found little to praise in the diversity department. Their pre-Columbian holdings are hidden in the basement, their African and Oceanic galleries are weirdly situated, and their main exhibits especially (which I do hold as the most important marker of a museum’s tastes and priorities, since they are the main thing museums will advertise, merchandise, celebrate, etc) leave much to be desired in terms of representation. In the past several years in their large exhibition galleries, they’ve primarily shown white men (Edgar Degas, Dale Chihuly, Alex Katz, Mario Testino, Jamie Wyeth, Richard Avedon, Ellsworth Kelly, etc), authorless objects like samurai armor, or fashion primarily designed by white men. The only major show I can think of with named artists of color is Fresh Ink, displaying the work of ten contemporary Chinese artists (only one a woman). The Quilts and Color show from this summer was notable for its focus on works made by women, even if they were anonymous housewives, but the text associated with the show rarely mentioned the actual makers of the works, instead choosing to discuss everything in the context of color theory and the collectors’ process. There is an admission that these quilts anticipate later experiments in color and optical effects by influential artists like Josef Albers and Bridget Riley, but the fact that the people actually pioneering these ideas are “non-artist” housewives is never mentioned.

Shinique SmithEntrance to Shinique Smith: Bright Matter. All photos by the author.

All this frustration with the MFA’s lack of diversity is just a lead-up to say how pleased I’ve been with the museum’s contemporary wing as of late. Not only have the 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. Side note: we went to the same college, which kind of blows my mind because I can’t think of any artists I really love who went there.

Pulling from a range of graphic references–including graffiti, Cy Twombly, calligraphy, fashion design, rock music, breakdancing, 80s nostalgia, and Jean-Michel Basquiat–Smith has forged a distinctive style through her incorporation of lowbrow textiles, sweeping gestures, and collage elements in a variety of works. She is probably most known for her sculptural clothing bundles, representing “bales” of clothes sent from the US and other Western countries to communities in Africa for re-use. Though they make compelling statements about the intersection of race, culture, and consumerism in the clothing industry, I found them kind of underwhelming in the context of this exhibit. I think they’re probably most effective in large groups filling up a gallery space, as opposed to strewn individually throughout the rooms. I felt similarly about her hanging clothing bundle sculptures, collectively titled Parade, which are so interesting but just not placed well here. I wanted more of them peppering the space about my head, so they might truly invoke the parade floats hinted at in the title. I do really like all of these sculptural pieces, I’m just not sure they were shown off to their best effect in this specific display.

shiniquesmith-installationviewShinique Smith: Bright Matter. Installation view.

shiniquesmith-Parade-2014Shinique Smith: Parade (detail), 2014.

Luckily, I had plenty of beautiful things to engage me with Smith’s truly lovely wall pieces, many of which are brand new and haven’t been shown before. These large-scale canvases combine all manner of material, including paint, fabrics, bleach, beads, dolls, and magazine cut-outs, resulting in visually stunning abstract works that benefit as much from a distanced viewing as from a close inspection of detail. Smith is adept at blending aspects of memory and nostalgia in a way that feels universal, filtering her own associations through ambiguous, abstract compositions. In a work like Inner Clock, she pieces together elements of her own youth, deeply intimate symbols as well as actual personal objects. And yet, because of her deft blending of familiar materials, I can still easily find my own experiences in this: the pink-haired doll, the deflated balloons, the pink boa and mannequin arm; all remind me of specific events or moments in my own life, from birthday party afterglow to art class sculpture projects. Similarly, her impressive Of a Particular Perfume easily calls to mind the soft quietude of my grandparents’ house simply in its use of a pink crocheted shawl.

Through such work, Smith ably forges a connection with her viewers, a recognition of object and material that links to memory, tied up in the obscure associations each individual may have to a fabric pattern, a piece of jewelry, an abstract shape. She also references street and youth subcultures in her use of graffiti-style writing and recognizable collage elements, while pulling from a host of other sources. This kind of allusive art-making can have mixed results: Some artists seem overly bent on referencing everything they can, on citing more known works of art so they can elicit a knowing “a-ha!” moment in their viewers. Smith incorporates a lot of re-used and re-hashed material, but always in a way that pleases the eye visually as much as it arouses our nostalgia. She seamlessly works it into her bold, energetic painting style, with sweeping strokes curving and falling across her large canvases, echoing the folds of a piece of cloth or beads strung on a necklace. In a winking response to Abstract Expressionism, she maintains the importance of action and gesture but rejects the sanctification and self-importance associated with that movement.

shiniquesmith-InnerClock-2014Shinique Smith: Inner clock, 2014.

shiniquesmith-InnerClock-2014-2Shinique Smith: Inner Clock (detail), 2014.

shiniquesmith-OfaParticularPerfume-2011Shinique Smith: Of a Particular Perfume, 2011.

shiniquesmith-Splendid-2014-2Shinique Smith: Splendid, 2014.

shiniquesmith-Splendid-2014Shinique Smith: Splendid (detail), 2014.

shiniquesmith-Majesty-2012Shinique Smith: Majesty, 2012.

shiniquesmith-Breath&Line-2014Shinique Smith: Breath & Line (detail), 2014.

Smith’s stimulation of the senses is kicked up a notch in the final work of the show (at least, in the way I walked around it): Breath & Line. This installation is set in a small room covered in mirrors, lights, and black graffiti-like calligraphic scrawl, and whispering audio plays throughout, sampling poetry, song lyrics, and Smith’s own breath. In her continued use of nostalgia, she also incorporates scent- one of the most powerful links to memory. It is an understated but powerful piece, beautiful in a way that is slightly haunting. Breath & Line marks something of a turn for the artist when compared to the other works on view in Bright Matter– its black and white color scheme, flat graphics, and hushed voices seem removed from the plethora of loud, cluttered, colorful, playful pieces in the rest of the gallery. But its more serious atmosphere also led me to re-consider the tone of some of those other works as I re-traced my steps back through the exhibition, finding new elements and themes in works I had at first appreciated more at face value. Smith’s technique relies on layering, on piling on, and in doing so she encourages multiple takes and readings, collecting together positive and negative, specificity and ambiguity, and “high” and “low” all at once so that individual works often feel like well-packed suitcases full of her own lifetime of experiences. And perhaps yours, too.

shiniquesmith-BellyButtonWindow-2014Shinique Smith: Belly Button Window, 2014.

shiniquesmith-BellyButtonWindow-2014-2Shinique Smith: Belly Button Window (detail), 2014.

shiniquesmith-NoKeyNoQuestion-2013Shinique Smith: No Key, No Question, 2013.

shiniquesmith-TheSpark-2013Shinique Smith: The Spark, 2013.

shiniquesmith-UntitledForVandalsOnlyNo1-2009-2Shinique Smith: Untitled (For Vandals Only No. 1), 2009.

shiniquesmith-UntitledForVandalsOnlyNo1-2009Shinique Smith: Untitled (For Vandals Only No. 1) (detail), 2009.

shiniquesmith-WithWingsNewlyMadeofWater-2014Shinique Smith: With wings, newly made of water, 2014.

Art: Wangechi Mutu’s Grossly Beautiful Collage

yomammaWangechi Mutu: Yo Mamma, 2003. via Nasher Museum of Art

Combining diverse artistic approaches–including ink drawing, collage, installation, painting, video, 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. Her work has primarily focused on subversions of the female form, which Helaine Posner describes as a “cross-cultural look at the exoticized, eroticized, and demonized female body, particularly the black female body, as the repository of society’s fascination and fears” (The Reckoning). Her female figures tend to be elongated and contorted, at times even lumpy, made up of disparate pieces that seem to call out the innumerable expectations, presumptions, and stereotypes placed upon women in general by contemporary societies, and on black women specifically.

Many of her pieces mix pornographic imagery with ethnographic photography like that seen in National Geographic. In her series of collages collectively titled The Ark Collection, she playfully and pointedly juxtaposes black female porn models with details of Masai tribal textiles, jewelry, and figures taken from popular snaps by photojournalist Carole Beckwith. Mutu intentionally draws associations between the hyper-sexualization of black women in contemporary media and the long-held Western fascination with women living in so-called “primitive” or “exotic” cultures. Complex and confrontational, these works are also intriguingly beautiful, inviting viewers to consider how their different parts add up to a bitingly satirical whole. In these as in other works, we see a kind of dualism, which Mutu has herself described: “I was thinking in terms of two histories; I was moving from seeing myself as a person from Kenya in America, to seeing myself as a fusion of the two. When two ideas come together, it doesn’t always create a very logical result, it doesn’t add up to what people expect, and you can’t tell where one begins and where one ends” (“Resonant Surgeries: The Collaged World of Wangechi Mutu”).

Mutu- the ark collection2Wangechi Mutu: The Ark Collection, 2006. via Border Crossings Magazine

Mutu- the ark collectionWangechi Mutu: The Ark Collection, 2006. via Border Crossings Magazine

In many of her more recent pieces, the artist works on a large scale (about life-size for her figures) to create mixed-media representations of female-animal-plant hybrids, seemingly amorphous bodies that exist in fantastical landscapes. Her imagery seems to reference everything from environmental concerns and sci-fi technology to high fashion models and acid flashbacks. It is easy to draw a line between her work and the early cut-up collages by Picasso (which she cites as an influence), the gritty, exaggerated bodies of Egon Schiele, the overlapping composite paintings of Francis Picabia, and the grotesque figures of Georg Baselitz; however, Mutu brings the aesthetic of these white male modernists into the current age, and infuses it with her unique perspective, gendered and racial experience, and cultural signifiers. Of her identity as a black woman artist, she has commented, “Part of my baggage with feminism is that it still hasn’t taken into consideration the work done by women outside America and Europe. We’re coming from very different behavioural patterns as far as how the patriarchy expressed itself on us. European and American women occupy a very different space from African women, and even that is too general because there are different countries with different histories and different religions… I still feel there are many battles to be fought concerning how women are placed in society” (“Resonant Surgeries: The Collaged World of Wangechi Mutu”).

Another thing I appreciate about Wangechi Mutu is how she elevates the collage technique to a higher plane, as it is not typically considered a “high art” form. Many well-known artists have worked in collage (Picasso himself was a pioneer of the medium), but it is rarely considered a primary approach for major artists aside from someone like Hannah Höch or Richard Hamilton. I’ve never been quite sure why, I assume it has something to do with the typically small size of collaged works, or perhaps that it is by nature appropriative. Mutu’s life-size scale and expert utilization of different media, along with her captivatingly bold visual style, lend her collages a dynamism and confrontationalism that is not so often communicated with small cut-paper collage. She continues the practice’s tradition of using found imagery to comment on societal and cultural issues, but is not obvious about it in the way the Constructivists and Pop artists were, nor so cheeky as Dada artists, preferring to hint and cajole until her audience realizes the profound subtleties found within. Her figures suggest characters, her compositions suggest narrative settings, and we are allowed free reign as viewers to examine closely how she employs symbolic imagery, and how these women are positioned and what their gestures or actions may indicate. Her imagination and expansive artistic vocabulary continually blow me away, and here I’ve only scratched the surface of her varied output (she’s probably most known for her mixed media works, but she also does performance, installation, sculpture, and film). Actually, I should just take a step back and let her work speak for itself.

 

untitled-640x845Wangechi Mutu: Untitled, 2003. via Wangechi Mutu

onceuponatimeWangechi Mutu: Once upon a time she said, I’m not afraid and her enemies became afraid of her The End, 2013. via Nasher Museum of Art

ridingdeathWangechi Mutu: Riding Death in My Sleep, 2002. via Nasher Museum of Art

Mutu- Forensic_Forms_5-598x845Wangechi Mutu: Forensic Forms, 5 of 10, 2004. via Wangechi Mutu

Wangechi Mutu - SantigoldWangechi Mutu: The End of Eating Everything, 2013. See a clip of the short film. Film still via Wangechi Mutu

Mutu: Fish-Trinity-1100x728Wangechi Mutu: Sketchbook Drawing (Fish Trinity), 2011. via Wangechi Mutu

MutuWangechi Mutu: Blue Rose, 2007. via Wangechi Mutu

misguidedWangechi Mutu: Misguided Little Unforgivable Hierarchies, 2005. via Nasher Museum of Art

People-in-Glass-Towers-Should-Not-Imagine-Us-EDITED-1100x766Wangechi Mutu: People in Glass Towers Should Not Imagine Us, 2003. via Wangechi Mutu

Mutu_361_TheStormHasFinallyMadeItOutOfMe_loresWangechi Mutu: The Storm Has Finally Made It Out Of Me Alhamdulillah, 2003. via Wangechi Mutu

Me.I1-1100x675Wangechi Mutu: Me.I., 2012. via Wangechi Mutu

Sources:

Robert Enright and Wangechi Mutu. “Resonant Surgeries: The Collaged World of Wangechi Mutu.Border Crossings Magazine.

Helaine Posner. “Wangechi Mutu.” The Reckoning: Women Artists in the New Millennium. Prestel Publishing, 2013.

Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey.” Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.

Wangechi Mutu artist site.

Poster Design: The Posters of Akiko Stehrenberger

One my great passions is poster art, as anyone who knows me is well aware. I love the combination of illustration, advertising, referential imagery, typography, and stylistic variety I see in so many posters for film, tv, bands, and events. One of the biggest downsides to being interested in poster design is that so often artists are not credited for their work- I’m often lucky if I can make out a small signature to go by, especially on older designs. With a lot of independent films turning to illustrators and fine artists for their posters, it’s even more disappointing this is so frequently happens today. Gorgeous movie posters are unveiled and few press releases or film news sites include artist names unless it’s a Mondo release or some big name. Since I want to write about poster designers on here anyway, I’m going to start highlighting artists whose work is likely familiar to filmgoers but whose names might not be as known. I’m starting with an easy one because there’s already been some articles written about her, and because I absolutely love her work: Akiko Stehrenberger.

I first became aware of Stehrenberger as an artist through her breathtaking poster for Kiss of the Damned, which honestly stopped me in my tracks. It’s the kind of poster that makes me rethink how the film’s trailer looked terrible. It’s the kind of poster I’d be happy to have on my wall regardless of whether I’d enjoyed or even seen the film. It is, in short, a damn good poster. And I immediately wanted to know more about its designer. Originally based in New York, Stehrenberger began her career doing magazine illustration. When she moved back to Los Angeles in 2004 she started designing movie posters, though she has also worked in advertising, toy design, and portraiture. As an artist she has been devoted to hand-drawn illustration, often rendering posters in paint and graphite, but she has become equally adept at digital production. Her style is incredibly diverse, but is perhaps most distinguished by a free use of color, spare use of text, figural subjects,  and incorporation of freehand visual details.

akiko-stehrenberger-funnygamesAkiko Stehrenberger: Funny Games, 2007. via IMPAwards

One of Stehrenberger’s most high-profile designs to date is her poster for Michael Haneke’s 2007 remake of Funny Games. She pulled a screenshot depicting a frightened Naomi Watts in close-up, and turned it into a photorealistic digital painting. It is the perfect moment to capture from the film: the character is obviously scared and pained, with teary eyes and unkempt hair, but there is a hint of defiance in her expression that relates to the progression of the story. The image is clouded with noise, nearly disguising the fact that this is in fact a digital painting and not a simple film still- perhaps a subtle reference to Haneke’s essential copying of himself in remaking his own film, or to the inherent artifice of film as a medium. The type is simple and direct, allowing the illustration to do most of the work, aided by the fantastically chilling tagline, “You must admit, you brought this on yourself.” Cited as her personal favorite of her designs, Stehrenberger says, “I fought really, really hard for Funny Games to come out the way it did. I don’t think I ever fought harder for any of my designs. The client kept wanting to add something to it, like a gloved hand, or blood, and I believed strongly that it was strong enough and haunting on its own” (Mubi: Movie Poster of the Week interview).

As much as I love the bold, disturbing visual of the Funny Games poster, it’s generally her more colorful, playful work to which I’m drawn. Her work for The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology–a film I haven’t seen and admittedly don’t know much about–is a psychedelic portrait of philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek. Rendered in vibrant pink and purple ink, his gruff personage is surrounded by religious and military figures, rainbow bridges, rolling green fields, cowboys, and lovers. The composition presents a strange, varied, eclectic documentary, referencing politics, Hollywood, 1960s counter-culture, and Christianity in its visual sources and color scheme: appropriate for a movie about how media reinforces certain belief systems. The style recalls hand-drawn indie band gig posters while bringing in allusions to Socialist Realism and Soviet design. I absolutely love the inky, freehand lines and garish colors, it’s just a really appealing image.

Akiko Stehrenberger - Pervert's Guide to IdeologyAkiko Stehrenberger: The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, 2012. via IMPAwards

Akiko Stehrenberger is committed to maintaining a level of artistry and innovation in the poster industry. She does the kind of work that got me excited about poster design in the first place, the kind of eye-catching, referential, detailed visuals that don’t just sell a film but really sell themselves. Over the past decade she has created several memorable designs for indie films (she prefers independent over studio movies because she generally has more creative control), and regardless of the films’ quality I can always view her posters as autonomous works of art. I especially love the painterly approach she takes to most of her works, even her digital designs, as it is reminiscent of the great illustrated posters of the pre-digital age. Of her work’s unique place in the greater scheme of things, she says, “I’d be lying if I said it was my intention to try to change the industry when I first got into it. My main goal was to do work I was proud of and eventually people started appreciating it and asking for more of it. Leaving a small influence and getting to work with some of the best creative directors in this industry, is just the cherry on top!” (Japan Cinema interview).

Incidentally, Stehrenberger is also one of the few female designers who’s really made a name for herself in the typically male-dominated field, and I just think that’s really cool.

akiko-stehrenberger-casa-de-mi-padrejpgAkiko Stehrenberger: Casa de mi Padre, 2012. via IMPAwards

fathers_day_ver2_xlgAkiko Stehrenberger: Father’s Day, 2012. via IMPAwards

12_awaywego_planeAkiko Stehrenberger: Away We Go, 2009. via H Represents

akikomatic_herAkiko Stehrenberger: Her, 2014. via H Represents

akiko_undertheskin-hrepresents-comAkiko Stehrenberger: Under the Skin, 2014. via H Represents

Akiko Stehrenberger - Code UnknownAkiko Stehrenberger: Code Unknown, 2000. Blu-ray cover. via H Represents

blue_ruin_ver3_xxlgAkiko Stehrenberger: Blue Ruin, 2014. via IMPAwards

Akiko Stehrenberger - Kiss of the DamnedAkiko Stehrenberger: Kiss of the Damned, 2013. via IMPAwards

28_seriousman2Akiko Stehrenberger: A Serious Man, 2009. via H Represents

Sources:

Akikomatic. Akiko Stehrenberger’s official site.

Adrian Curry. “Movie Poster of the Week: An Interview with ‘Funny Games’ Poster Designer Akiko Stehrenberger.” Mubi.com, 2010.

Creative Spotlight: Episode #199 – Akiko Stehrenberger.” Japan Cinema, 2013.