Two new exhibits combine cultures with beauty and intelligence
For some reason, I'm never ready for the onslaught of shows that are unleashed at the beginning of the fall season each September. If I stop to think about how many noteworthy exhibits have opened in the past two weeks or are about to open — and how many I want to review — I'll be forced to apply for an MMJ card. So let's dive right in.
I've been really impressed by what Tina Goodwin has been doing at Goodwin Fine Art, and her fall opener has only enhanced my opinion of the gallery. That show is Yoshitomo Saito: Espírito Alegre, made up of the Japanese-American artist's signature nature-based bronze sculptures, which are simultaneously super-realistic and abstract. This is quite a trick when you think about it, and it's one of the things that make Saito's conceptual work more than a little engaging.
Saito was born, raised and educated in Japan, but he's been in the United States since he was a graduate student at the California College of the Arts, where he earned his MFA in 1987. For the past seven years, he's lived in the metro Denver area, and he maintains a studio and outdoor foundry at Ironton.
The show includes a few pieces from his "Colorado Loop" series, but most of it is given over to "Espírito Alegre," a new series that was partly inspired by Brazilian jazz — hence the Portuguese title. In his artist statement, Saito also mentions that he was struck by the late Dale Chisman's lyrical jazz-inspired prints. Walking in to Goodwin, I was taken by the incredible beauty and stunning degree of technical skill shown off by Saito's sculptures. From a distance, the pieces look like non-objective three-dimensional scribbles, but as I got closer, I realized that the elements were made up of skillfully cast and welded bronze elements based on tree limbs, roots, and even entire plants; all of their detail was preserved in the metal. Saito told me that the use of Colorado plants as the source of the imagery links this work to the Western landscape tradition.
Since Saito stacks ideas on top of one another — abstract, representational, Brazilian jazz, the Western landscape — it's informative, if not surprising, to know that Japanese calligraphy underlies all of these compositions. This is especially evident in the "Colorado Loop" series, where the overall forms of the pieces are a series of open loops clustered together; these refer directly to Enso, a calligraphic method in which the writer attempts to make a perfect freehand circle — perfect from a spiritual perspective, Saito points out, not a mathematical one. Saito has grounded the circle in Colorado terms by mentioning the similar forms taken by lassos or fly-fishing lines.
Saito specializes in smart and beautiful contemporary work, something that is also showcased a few blocks away at the Denver Art Museum, where the traveling El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa is ensconced. The stunningly beautiful and staggeringly intelligent exhibit is the African artist's first-ever retrospective, and I was lucky enough to get a guided tour from him while he was in town last week.
The show was organized for the Museum for African Art in New York by curator Lisa Binder, but the DAM's own Native Arts specialist, Nancy Blomberg, is serving as the host curator here. Since it's a retrospective, I was disappointed that the show wasn't arranged chronologically so that Anatsui's stylistic development would be easy to follow. Since I had the artist lead me through, I could clearly understand how he was able to reconcile his everyday African reality with the otherworldly alternative reality of international contemporary art.
Born in 1944 in Ghana, Anatsui was interested in art from childhood. He earned both his undergraduate and graduate degrees at the College of Art at the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi. According to Anatsui, the college had a relationship with Goldsmiths College in London — one of the most important art schools in the world. As a result, Anatsui was exposed to European and even American art while he was still a student because most of his professors were from Europe and America. In 1975, Anatsui began teaching at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, a job that continued until his retirement earlier this year.
It was around the time that he moved to Nigeria that Anatsui had his Eureka! moment, crossing indigenous African forms with international sensibilities in a series of wooden trays. These trays were common fixtures of the local markets but Anatsui altered them by carving and in other ways covering them with abstract forms. These abstract shapes have their origins in printed patterns on the cloth used for traditional dress. The trays are brilliant, especially since they anticipate everything that would come later.
Over the years, from this modest beginning, Anatsui worked in a wide range of mediums, including sculpture, installation, ceramics, painting, drawing and the kind of thing that established his worldwide fame: his woven metal wall hangings. In these spectacular metal tapestries, Anatsui, with the help of a team of twenty assistants, assembles huge abstract wall pieces by joining together smashed metal bottle caps that are formed into rectilinear shapes. The different colors of the bottle caps are masterfully arranged so that they seem to shimmer. When installed, they undulate in permanent waves through the use of nylon wires that invisibly connect different parts in the back of the pieces so that they take on dynamic overall forms.
The show is a cross-cultural visual feast.
Another example of the successful reconciliation of different cultures is the DAM's own director, Christoph Heinrich, who hails from Germany but is clearly right at home in Denver. I bring him up because I inadvertently left him out of my piece last week introducing William Morrow, the new curator in the Modern and Contemporary Department. It wasn't that I had forgotten about him; after all, I'd told Morrow what a great job I thought Heinrich had done converting the formerly mostly static DAM into an exhibition-driven place. It's just that it slipped my mind that Heinrich, before becoming Lewis Sharp's successor, had been Dianne Vanderlip's in Modern and Contemporary Art from 2007 to 2009. The omission is all the more egregious since I reviewed every show he put together — some of which won Best of Denver awards.
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