How art gets generated.
Lately the supersizing of galleries, and of the artworks therein, has been taken as a sign that the art world is losing touch with everything human. That need not be the case, as you can see in “Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui,” the artist’s sumptuous mid-career survey at the Brooklyn Museum.
Mr. Anatsui’s wall hangings, majestic as they are, do not use scale as a cudgel. That’s true even of high-profile works like his mural at the High Line and of the wall-spanning, rotunda-filling examples in the Brooklyn show. Only after you have marveled at their intricacy and versatility does the vastness hit you.
It helps to know (as many people do, now that Mr. Anatsui is a global star) that these peaked, shimmering fields are made from folded, twisted and linked liquor-bottle caps, at studios in Ghana and Nigeria, and that they have as much to do with post-colonial poverty and strife as they do with opulence.
These are formidable works, to be sure. But the intimidation factor is undercut by the artist’s signature material — a porous, voluminous, reflective, infinitely malleable, quicksilver cloth — and his open, collaborative approach to working with it.
Organized by Ellen Rudolph for the Akron Art Museum and installed in Brooklyn by Kevin Dumouchelle, “Gravity and Grace” works on multiple levels. Its texts are pitched at the general public, but it has plenty to offer the professionals and connoisseurs who may have seen Mr. Anatsui’s works at the Venice Biennale or on regular visits to the Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea.
One of those offerings is a rare look at Mr. Anatsui’s early sculptures, smaller wood reliefs that are the genesis of the giant wall hangings (even if they don’t immediately look like it). Composed of parallel lengths of incised wood, they resemble picket fences but can be arranged in different formations; generally Mr. Anatsui leaves them open to interpretation by the curators who install them, as he does with his metal works.
Here too are floor sculptures made from the lids of tins of evaporated milk, wired together into a glittery fabric. Made on the verge of Mr. Anatsui’s breakthrough with the liquor bottle tops, they show how perilously close he came to standard Post-Minimal “installationism” (multiplying a single common object without really transforming it).
He could do (and has done) more with the liquor bottle caps and wrappers, which he stumbled on one day outside a distillery in Nsukka, Nigeria; the aluminum foil could be rolled into tubes, or folded into rosettes, or left in the round and crushed like soda cans. Those small pieces could be assembled into a chain, or a basket weave, or any number of other patterns. And unlike the milk-tin lids, the bottle tops come in different colors, mainly red, gold, black and yellow — a limited palette but one rich enough to evoke Byzantine mosaics and Klimt paintings.
In one of several excerpts from a 2011 documentary by Susan Vogel, which are scattered throughout the exhibition, Mr. Anatsui pieces together a wall hanging from sheets of material brought to him by studio assistants. (They do the tedious work, the flattening and twisting and linking.) It’s a collaborative process — “the artist is not a dictator,” he has said — but there is no mistaking the painterly level of control as he requests specific colors and textures.
Mr. Anatsui’s installation process is even more flexible, which is crucial to his art’s unassuming grandeur; curators may ruffle the surfaces of the wall hangings as they please, smoothing old wrinkles or developing new ones. You may fall in love with a piece in one show and not even recognize it on its next outing; a photograph of “Earth’s Skin” taken in Akron looked nothing like the version in Brooklyn.
The point is that each of his works, however macro in scale, reveals itself as a series of micro-events. All along the nearly 33-foot-long expanse of the gloriously resplendent “Earth’s Skin” (2009), for instance, are folds and puckers and dents and gaps and little spikes of copper wire, details that pull you in close right away and keep you there.
You might, on occasion, wonder whether these works even need to be so big. Mr. Anatsui seems to be wondering too; the latest pieces here (from 2010) are smaller, as were the more recent works in his winter show at Shainman. They look less like friezes and tapestries, but accrue richness in other ways: through the bustlelike draping of “Red Block” and “Black Block,” or the ombre shadings of “Amemo (Mask of Humankind).”
I hope that Mr. Anatsui keeps working large, though, because he is not your typical trophy maker. Light, limber and accommodating, his art takes advantage of an expanded art world without making you feel small.
“Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui” runs through Aug. 4 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, at Prospect Park; (718)638-5000, brooklynmuseum.org.
By Karen Rosenberg, NY Times Art & Design, February 28, 2013
For the full article, please visit: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/01/arts/design/gravity-and-grace-by-el-anatsui-at-brooklyn-museum.html?ref=design