Wednesday, May 31, 2017

"Please Respond", Senga Nengudi at the CAC

At the Contemporary Art Center, Improvisational Gestures is the "first museum exhibition to survey the sculptures, performance video and related work" from Senga Nengudi. The artist born in Chicago in 1943 is presently living and working in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She was involved in setting up the touring comprehensive survey of her work which spans forty years of her career, from the 70's to the present and features several pieces of her famous RSVP series started in 1975.
The show curated by Elissa Auther and Nora Burnett, following a traditional setting, starts with an informative wall text about the artist and her work accompanied by a few black and white photographs documenting the artist's interaction with her sculptures made of pantyhose. A number of her iconic sculptures fill the second floor of the venue, lined up along the walls. The spotlights in the dark space allow a play between the pieces made of "stretched, pulled , twisted" nylon tights and their shadows. Nengudi is well known for her use of the tan colored medium with sand-filled feet to support the final shape. The RSVP series, an ongoing project started in 1975, is well represented with eight pieces made in 2014. Their message about stretching body and psyche is consistent while Blossom, 2014, created specifically for the exhibition seems somewhat clichéd. Rubber Maid, 2011 and Swing Low, 1976/2014, allude to female shapes with sagging breasts.
A major piece, Nuki Nuki: Across 118th St., 1982, incorporates wooden slats entangled with torn pantyhose, fragile but flexible bridge between two walls. The sculpture is a reflection about the living conditions in the seventies and eighties Harlem where Nengudi lived from 1971 to 1974 as a member of the black artists' community. The sound of a video emerges from a small room where Warp Dance, 2007, is displayed on a large screen. In the multi-channel audio/video installation (sound by Butch Morris) made during the artist's residence at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, she captures colors and rhythms of mechanized looms, resulting in a mesmerizing piece. In the center of the exhibition, a whole space is dedicated to more video works like Side by Side, 2006, about her collaboration with Maren Hassinger, Hands, 2003-2012, a gestural piece performed with hands only, and The Threader, 2007, made also during her residency, in which she records the repetitive gestures of a textile worker. Photographs document past performances of the artist with her collaborators and friends, among them the memorable Gutai style event Ceremony for Freeway Fets, 1978, which took place underneath an interstate overpass downtown Los Angeles or Nengudi wearing her own sculptures like Nick Cave, for Sculpture Inside Out, 1977/2014.
The exhibition provides an in-depth review of  the work of the multidisciplinary artist who started her career as a dancer. Incorporating dance, music, visual art, she evokes life impermanence, female identity, rituals, through gestures, movement, activating her sculptures during improvised performances. Her RSVP series ( Répondez S'il Vous Plaît) translates into "Please Respond", a direct call to the viewer to become engaged and interact with the works. At first, attracted by the sculptures, I found them static and mute, like frozen lifeless shapes. The display emphasizes their aesthetic qualities, but renders them shallow and irrelevant as the artist's message gets lost,... until one reaches the videos and photographs of her performances. Hypnotized and entranced, I spent a long time watching the videos made during her residency. The Threader becomes a mythical story about a textile worker repeating the same gestures in harmony with the machine to create perfect patterns for eternity. Warp Dance gives life to mechanized looms dancing in cadence and changing colors according to a perpetual cycle. Nengudi's art is dynamic, performative, improvisional, and becomes stale in the museum's context. It brings up the challenge of representing performative art inspired by and created for a community within the walls of an institution.
The "first museum survey" of Senga Nengudi's sculptures comes short of its promises: "the works invite viewers to not only respond but to engage with them physically". At the end of the visit, I felt like a spectator.

R.S.V.P. sculptures activated by the artist and Maren Hassinger, 1977
Rapunzel, 1980/2014
R.S.V.P Reverie 'D', 2014


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