This exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum closed yesterday, so now is clearly an ideal time to post a review. I’m very on top of things. Oops / sorry.
The Brooklyn Museum’s survey of mixed-media artist Wangechi Mutu is titled A Fantastic Journey and, upon entering the exhibition, the stage is set for an adventure befitting such a name. A freestanding wall sits not far from the glass doors through which one enters, enticingly blocking the rest of the space from the visitor’s view. On the wall is a single piece of Mutu’s work with a mouthful of a title: “Once upon a time she said, I’m not afraid and her enemies began to fear her The End” (2013) is a large mixed-media collage depicting a weirdly appealing, vaguely female creature traversing a mountainous, alien landscape. The rocky scenery is constructed from dark, crumpled fabric that juts away from the wall and pools on the floor. It’s a first encounter that leaves the visitor with a sense of great anticipation but, though the rest of the exhibition is certainly enjoyable, one doesn’t end up experiencing quite the journey that this initial impression promises.
Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey was originally organized and shown at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art, curated by Trevor Schoonmaker. The exhibition moved to the Brooklyn Museum last October, coordinated by Assistant Curator Saisha Grayson, and it will reside in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art until March 9, 2014. The exhibition is a natural fit for the Center; Mutu, a native of Nairobi, Kenya who now lives in Brooklyn, is known for her large-scale mixed-media collages that critically scrutinize the exoticization of black women. Her body of work as a whole touches upon an even wider range of topics: racial identity, the association of women and nature, cultural hybridization, and excessive consumerism.
Upon entering the exhibition, the space behind the initial freestanding wall reveals itself to be lined with the mixed-media collages on mylar that Mutu is known for. Mostly completed in the mid-2000s, they’re extremely cohesive both formally and conceptually: all prominently displaying an otherworldly figure, neither entirely human, plant, nor animal but somehow inarguably female, constructed from bits of found images, objects, and drawn elements. They’re ambiguous aggregations of racial identity. The collages demand attention because of their size, about the height of a fully-grown person, and because many figures stare out at the viewer, making bold, arguably defiant eye contact. A notable exception to this trend is the sculptural installation in the center of the room, “Suspended Playtime” (2008), consisting of forty-four balls made from garbage bags that are wrapped and suspended from the ceiling with twine. The balls hover just a few inches above the gallery floor. Though not much of an outlier in tone or theme, this piece feels dramatically different since it’s the first work a visitor encounters that doesn’t make obvious use of the human form.
Upon passing through a doorway at the far end of this space, one finds themself in a smaller, more dimly lit room and, after a sharp right turn, enters an even darker long and narrow corridor. As with the first room, these spaces are largely dominated by Mutu’s collages on mylar. Though the exhibition features a lot of them, they don’t feel redundant because each has such a powerful presence. The collages are randomly interspersed with pleasantly discordant works like “Eat Cake” (2012), a video projected down onto white paper laid across the surface of a shipping pallet. The piece shows Mutu, well-dressed but with wild, unkempt hair and nails, devouring a chocolate cake in the middle of what appears to be a forest. It’s a commentary on the separation of civilization from the natural world as well as a critique of excessive consumption, indicating a slight shift in the focus of Mutu’s recent work.
A final, newly created video project waits at the end of the corridor, displayed on a wall-sized screen and clearly meant to be a highlight of the exhibition. “The End of Eating Everything” (2013) doesn’t disappoint. The techniques that Mutu uses to create her fantastic collages come fully to life when applied to time-based media. Elements are no longer static on a piece of mylar; they move, interact, and make noise. This piece features contemporary musician Santigold as an enormous, mutant, consumerist monster, floating through the air and growing ever larger as she violently gorges herself on a flock of birds and belches brownish, dirty smoke. This smoke eventually obscures the monster from view and reveals itself to be full of floating Santigold heads, spore-like and wriggling, presumably about to grow into creatures like the blob-like giant we first encountered. This piece, like “Eat Cake,” is largely a critique of contemporary overconsumption and overindulgence.
As I wrote earlier, the experience of walking through this exhibition is essentially an enjoyable one. Mutu’s art is beautiful, weird, and intriguing, and the selection of art seems well-curated; there’s enough to show variety but not so much that the work becomes redundant or tiring. The exhibition designers have done a few things right, creating a fairly dark, intimate setting with dim lighting, painted walls and relatively small rooms that feels more appropriate to the artwork than a stark, bright white gallery likely would. That said, the design of the space does feel heavy-handed enough to be a detriment to the exhibition as a whole. The design seems like a surface-level interpretation of Mutu’s interest in nature. Rough, dark, felt-like fabric adhered to a wall in the first room is a less-than-subtle representation of tree bark. Further into the exhibition this fabric is shaped into unmistakably treelike forms, growing up walls and around columns or corners. Paint along the baseboards of most walls is sparse with visible brushstrokes, obviously meant to give the impression of grass. At one point I rounded a corner to hear the noise of chirping birds projected above my head. It’s possible that all this is meant to be a reflection of the straightforward nature of much of Mutu’s work: her collaged women are certainly not subtle, but it’s their directness, their demand of the viewer’s full attention that makes them so interesting and memorable. This lack of subtlety is less successful in the design of the exhibition itself. The faux trees and painted grass feel almost childish, a shallow representation of a significant theme underlying Mutu’s artwork.
Additionally, the work seems to be presented without much regard to the story that its order and pacing tell. There’s no discernable overarching theme to each distinct space and no noticeable narrative as you move through the exhibition, just a sweeping collection of Mutu’s work haphazardly mixed together. This seems like a massive missed opportunity; the exhibition title implies a journey, some sort of story that unfolds as one moves through the space, and to not experience that is disappointing. A relatively obvious alternative would have been to display Mutu’s work chronologically. This could have provided a natural journey through time and her evolution as an artist and cultural critic; a visitor would see a progression of theme, process, and form, adding an additional layer of meaning to the exhibition that is lacking in its current arrangement.
Overall, the Brooklyn Museum’s Wangechi Mutu exhibition is good, but a more thoughtful, less literal approach to the design of the space could have certainly made it better. Mutu is a brilliant artist showcased in a way that limits a viewer’s depth of understanding of her work and progression. At its outset, A Fantastic Journey seems poised to be just that; unfortunately, its reality is more a surface-level survey than a grand adventure.