Wangechi Mutu: Intertwined
On ViewNew Museum
March 2–June 4, 2023
Spanning all four floors (in addition to one sculpture in the sky room), Wangechi Mutu: Intertwined brings together nearly three decades of the multimedia artist’s work, from intricate collages and large-scale sculptures, to videos and small assemblages. Each floor functions as its own exhibition, with different installation designs and materials. While the title of the exhibition references a 2003 collage showing two women with wolf heads, it also describes the exhibition’s approach to Mutu’s practice—braiding together collages, sculptures, videos, and installations on each floor.
Mutu’s immersive installations begin in the lobby, where vinyl elements of Sick Planets (2007–13/2023) adorn the wall around the elevator bay—circular planetary forms arranged near the ceiling, each with open legs jutting out of them and bursts of splattered red-like blood. These motifs continue on the second floor, which focuses on the artist’s early sculptures and works on paper. Here, the exhibition smartly makes a much-needed connection between her sculptures and the mixed media collages Mutu is known for, such as Fallen Heads (2010), an eight-foot-tall collage featuring dark red and pink ink splatters, plastic pearls, and contact paper. Over a dozen disembodied heads fill the paper with ribbon-like tentacles emerging from their mouths, ears, hair, connecting them in a web. The pearls add a layer of dimensionality, glitter, and luster—you want to look at the beauty, but there is also something disturbing, bordering on the grotesque. The disembodied heads float against a background of dark reds and soft pinks, like viewing cells under a microscope; it’s unclear, at first, what the work shows. As the artist explains in a conversation with the exhibition’s curators in the catalogue, “I was trying to figure out how to make images that were powerful, relatable, scary, and alive.”
In this same gallery a selection of sketches are displayed in a vitrine against the wall. The artist’s earliest sculptures from the late nineties are placed at the entryway, and her circular red soil pulp sculptures mounted on sticks occupy the center of the room. This installation reveals a connection between Mutu’s many modes of making—assemblage, finding, building, gathering—with an emphasis on the materiality of her practice. The presence of her early figurative sculptures, which include paint, shells, and other found objects, enhances our understanding of her mylar collages as three-dimensional built works, layered with inks, paintings, and found photographic materials. The sketches show her experimenting with form and materials: ink splatters, and references to spooky fairy tales that carry throughout her work. The vitrine is also scattered with brown sand, covering and clouding the drawings. The dark brown walls are streaked as though we are inside something damp that’s dripping, and the bright blue wall her collages hang on is gauged into with deep red holes, an installation Mutu refers to as “wounded wall.” In each case, the works are conceived of with a range of substances, resisting easy categorization.
The sense of being immersed in an environment is an important part of the narrative quality of Mutu’s work. Drawing on Grimm fairy tales, Haitian Vodou and Catholic ritual practices, and the objectification of women’s bodies in media, each piece and collection of works tells a story. The large scale of many of her mature collages lends itself to a closer reading of all its many aspects. On the next floor, another successful pairing of collage and sculpture further illustrates this narrative potential of her work. In the sculpture Outstretched (2019), a woman reclines in a classic odalisque pose, her body somewhat amphibian-like with webbing, her hands and face covered in magenta feathers. Though the media list for this work is long, (soil, charcoal, paper pulp, wood glue, pigment, and feathers) the piece’s materiality is not as captivating as her collages or early assemblages. Behind it is The Storm (2012), a luscious bright red collage on linoleum featuring an outstretched woman surrounded by flying creatures whose wings feature feathers affixed to the surface and whose environment is built of coarse brown hair. While not in exactly the same position, the figure in the collage echoes the one in the sculpture, creating a call and response that energizes each work, despite being created seven years apart. These moments make clear the benefit of seeing an artist’s full body of work together, offering an opportunity for surprising connections.
One of Mutu’s largest sculptures, Sleeping Serpent (2014), is also on this floor. The long smooth body (372 inches long!) of the serpent seems at odds with the textured materiality of Mutu’s collages and clay sculptures. The head, glazed blue ceramic, shows a serenely sleeping face—a shift from the artist’s usual faces with widely open eyes and bold collaged features. Surrounded by many of her earthy sculptures—made of red soil, pulp, and wood—this shiny sculpture stands out. But this juxtaposition of materials forces a closer look. In fact, Sleeping Serpent is mixed media—the body appears to be encased in a trash bag of plastic fabric, bulging like a full garbage bag at the middle, like a snake that’s just finished a meal. The elegance of the ceramic head at odds with the disturbing bulge fits Mutu’s uncanny disarmament of material expectations and subject matter.
One of the most surprising moments of the exhibition comes in the sky room. Placed just within view of the opening elevator doors, with the city skyline visible through the glass windows around it, Shavasana I (2019) is startling. A bronze blanket covers a figure; all that’s visible are the manicured hands and feet that stick out from under the blanket with red high heels, one that’s just fallen off. The title suggests the peaceful moment at the end of yoga, a restful time to reconnect your breath and body. It also suggests a covered body after a tragedy. In fact, the exhibition text points out that śavāsana means in fact, “dead body.” Mutu’s figures are always in motion—flailing, flying, swimming, reaching—but with Sleeping Serpent and Shavasana I, we are offered two moments of repose that shift the idea of motion in another direction, away from the gestures of the physical body into the mental realm beyond.