It was a Lord of the Flies summer. I was coming from an undergraduate art program that served only to nurture the special seed inside each student and found myself immersed in Yale’s dog-eat-dog summer residency. Somewhere in the web of criticism, tangled social hierarchies, drunken critiques, and displaced aggression, I lost the thread of my work. The art I wanted to make was ridiculed so I made blind stabs at what might make the cut. I was failing based on criteria I couldn’t name or number.
June turned to July and we took a field trip to New York. The lot of us funneled through Sikkema Jenkins’ doors into Wangechi Mutu’s first solo exhibition there: An Alien Eye: And Other Killah Anthems. The work hit me like my native tongue in a sea of Jabberwocky-speak.
I walked through slowly, savoring the wonder that stirred. The two rooms were strung with giant landscapes on mylar, populated with hybrid, cyborg creatures engaged in life and death struggles. I was overwhelmed with a joyful sense of relief. Art wasn’t such a big mystery. Or, rather, the big mysteries were contained within the art. But knowing when art was powerful, when it was moving, was the most natural thing. I knew it when it struck me in the gut.
The work was easy to “get” but infinitely explorable. From across the room the pieces seemed to explode as colorful, inky blossoms. The vibrancy and roiling patterns drew me close, like a butterfly with the promise of nectar. Standing in front of a towering diptych, the terrible nature of the drama materialized from the attractive forms.
That diptych is called “My Strength Lies” and it commands the space and respect of a history painting. Its figures are epically proportioned within the frame. The in-your-face, larger-than-life protagonist looms above you; the scale shift suggests a large landscape; wild stormy skies hint at hazy, infinite depth.
The work seems to revolve around cycles of building and falling apart. The structure of the composition is circular – swinging your attention up a hill, where it scrambles onto a hairy mound, climbs a rickety tower and crosses a wooden beam to fall down a giantess and trace her leg to its stolen limb that sprays blood back up the hill.
The forms in the piece appear to be engaged in an all-consuming struggle to remain upright. But there is a sense of futility to their toil. Your strength lies where? In the ground, perhaps. The mass on the right panel is composed of the same substance as the giantess, but it is bent to the point of being broken, with its head planted in the soil. The woman constructing the tower relies on the foundation of this partially decomposed creature. The giantess draws from the downed body as well, carrying off its bloody limb.
The efforts to build stable structures involve human engineering, both in the wooden scaffolding of the ladder and the mechanical appendages of the giantess. But this technological armor is not infallible. The grounded figure also has mechanical and wooden augmentations and they didn’t stop it from toppling.
The piece is both detailed and hewn with reckless abandon. The speed and broad strokes of the process – the spray paint, ink spills, large cutout shapes – invoke the great forces of nature at work in the bodies and in the laws that govern the landscape. We see the inescapable cycles at play, but we also see that each player is infinitely, intricately unique. Mutu’s alchemical way of pouring inks, paint, and viscous liquids creates skins that are as multifaceted as our own.
Although the forms are bent, broken, and fated to fall, they are powerful. To hear Wangechi talk about her art, as we did that day, it is clear that the struggles taking place within it speak to us on many levels – about racial violence, sexual violence, human nature, the consequences of war, perseverance, rebirth. At the time, they spoke to me about creating. I saw the endless work, the infinite detail and attention that go into getting a piece of art to its feet. And yet we keep making images and objects despite creations that are, at best, incomplete hybrids of our intentions: at worst, fallen things. But the monstrous forms can still be magnificent and of real use to those that see them. So we pick up all of our odd parts and loose limbs and start again.