Be prepared to be overwhelmed by beauty. Stepping into Des Moines Art Center’s Anna K. Meredith Gallery is akin to immersing oneself in a lavish Baz Luhrmann set – lots of draping with an abundance of golden shimmer. All that glitters is not Hollywood, and the materials used to create many of the wall sculptures in “Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui” are recycled bottle caps and tin, not expensive metals and fabric. African artist El Anatsui creates from mundane materials, perhaps, why this contemporary artist doesn’t shun the beauty label. One wonders then, is beauty the byproduct of his art, or the thing that compels him forward?
Resolved to understand this beauty problem – to explore as much gravity as grace, one must first explore El Anatsui’s less glitzy beginnings. Exit stage left, quite literally, into a small interior room of the Blank Gallery, featuring the earliest works of the exhibit – including two 1980s paintings, the only non-sculptural works. The gallery’s walls, repainted an unusual salmon color, muted these rather humble abstract compositions. Seven wooden wall sculptures occupy the rest of the space, representing El Anatsui’s artistic focus during the 1990s. As Anatsui explains in Susan Vogel’s documentary, “Fold, Crumple,Crunch: The art of El Anatsui”, inspiration to create these pieces came after going to market and seeing wooden trays used to display food. He desired to transform these functional pieces, branding them with unique symbols that would then work into sculpture. Anatsui, who holds a degree and advanced certificate in Art, experimented with tools and techniques not typical of the African art world. Chainsaws, drills, wood burners and paint were used for “mark making,” opening a dialogue akin to paint mark makers, such as Cy Twombly or Ellsworth Kelly.
Rawness of expression is not lost with repurposed wood as medium. Anticline and Syncline (1995) is heavy with chainsaw hashes – each mark recreating the 1880 Berlin gathering where European countries laid a map of Africa and proceeded to divide it arbitrarily. These early mark making sculptures become more abstract as Anatsui adopts a personal manifesto of “non fixed form”. No sculpture remains static. Anatsui believes in allowing interpretation with each assemblage as art is a reflection of human life: “A human life is constantly in a state of change. I want my artwork to replicate that..I know there is an artist in each of us.” Therefore, the etched faces that peer out between colored slats of Conspirators (1997) may not even have been evident when this exhibit showed at the Brooklyn Museum. “Non fixed form” is a key component of Anatsui’s art, allowing the curator and installers to express their own creative vision.
Only one wooden sculptures gives indication of the direction of Anatsui’s future vision – Motley Crowd (1998). This rather whimsical sculpture of small wooden posts, a literal crowd of stick figures, ornamented with bold colored strips of flattened bottle caps adorning names such as, “Romatex”, “Ponce” and “Liquor Headmaster”. A curator note indicates that these strips were added in 2010, not long after Anatsui made his mark at the 2007 Venice Biennale.
Venice was El Anatsui’s moment to shine, unveiling a massive tapestry created from aluminum liquor bottle caps. The international art crowd buzzed, as much for Anatsui’s innovative use of medium, as the beauty it created. Shimmering tapestries fashioned from ‘the drink’ as Anatsui calls it in an interview. Alcohol, whose history binds Europe, Africa, and the Americas in dominion and consumptive reality. A reality in which El Anatsui touches upon with each handmade tie binding these sculptural pieces.
Glimmering wall sculptures bound in context, it is the work of late French philosopher, Simone Weil, that helps navigate their meaning: “The wall is the thing which separates them but it is also their means of communication.” Words taken from Weil’s 1947 philosophical book, “Gravity and Grace,” become gospel if trying to go beyond beauty, especially while observing the painterly abstraction, title piece, Gravity and Grace (2010). A piece that hints at a sculptural wall of fragility created by flattened, round liquor caps, a color palette of white, pink, gold, silver and yellow. Abstract rows of black bottle caps create random lines, giving the sculpture a painterly feel.
Garden Wall (2011) is the only other wall sculpture of the exhibit that evokes a painterly quality. Its horizontal splashes of black and white mimic a wall covered by a soft scrim of yellows, pinks, reds fashioned from bottle cap rims. Gravity and Grace (2010) paints a possible sun gone hidden within the metallic folds reminiscent Van Gogh’s bold strokes, while Garden Wall (2011) is more Monet, or perhaps the contemporary Des Moines Art Center’s Morris Louis piece, Untitled Number 189 (1958), its raw red paint licking the canvas in the same manner Anatsui’s red bottle caps flame up the sculpture.
Not all of Anatsui’s pieces are glitzy or painterly abstractions against the wall. A large portion of the I. M. Pei space is occupied by Gli (2010), which in the native tongue of Ewe means ‘wall’. Gli (2010) is composed of the same bottle cap medium, however this time the lip of the cap is used allowing a transparency akin to a vast scrim. Several areas are draped with this delicate chain mail, though only the two on the lower level, seem to explore the idea that Anatsui addresses – that walls do not always block, but open the mind to imagine what cannot be fully seen.
What is unnerving, yet invigorating about this exhibit is the vast range of ideas utilizing the same medium. There are the saccharine, glitzy amoeba shapes sucking up the wall. There is the boxy, pixellated Ink Splash (2010) with its computerized appearance juxtaposed by cobalt blue splashes pouring onto the floor. There is the shimmering, Drifting Continents (2010), whose eight oblong strips are softened by clumps of flower formed bottle caps – rosettes giving indication of continents, which are forever linked by alcohol’s byproduct that created them. “Gravity and Grace” overpowers to a point that one risks getting lost in it, perhaps forgetting context completely.
Context, however, cannot be forgotten as it is integral to Anatsui. El Anatsui, Ghanaian born (1944), who attended art school in Ghana, but left to live in Nigeria in 1975, is proud to declare himself a global nomad. He observes that this nomadic lifestyle influences his art, giving it a “nomadic aesthetic” – crossing boundaries between aesthetic and mediums. Beyond aesthetic, Anatsui’s art itself is highly nomadic, everything can be easily folded or stacked, requiring little demand when storing or shipping. Perhaps, that is why Waste Paper Bags (2010), massive bags sculpted from recycled printing plates, best offers gravity AND grace. These oversized, grey toned bags (think Claus Oldenburg without the color) revisits the 1980s, a time when Nigeria told the Ghanaians to pack and leave with their “Ghana-Must-Go” bags. This humble piece is a stark contrast to the sublime, perhaps indicating that its creator does not have a beauty complex after all.
(Pictures have been used from other sources – Des Moines Art Center does not allow photos.)