Galleries: Celebrating the work of avant garde artist Senga Nengudi

Tights attached to the wall, stretched out, filled with sand, hanging, taut, spider-like, to the floor. RSVP, as it is called, is avant garde artist Senga Nengudi’s most well-known and influential work, both within and beyond the shores of her native America. It is just one of the pieces in a major retrospective of the African American artist’s work that will open at Fruitmarket next week, the second-leg of the first solo institutional showing of Nengudi’s work in the UK.

The exhibition opened last Autumn at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, where it was conceived by the Head of Programmes, Laurence Sillars, long an advocate of Nengudi’s work, to redress the low level of exposure she has had in Europe, despite her “enormous contribution to the narrative of sculpture over the past 40-50 years.” Born in Chicago in 1943, Nengudi studied Dance and Art at the University of California, Los Angeles, (BA, 1967), Japanese Culture at Tokyo University (1966-7), before returning to UCLA for an MA in Sculpture (1971). Her output to date includes sculpture, installation, video work, photography, painting, and poetry, yet she also creates work under various pseudonyms, playing with racial and gender preconceptions.

If Nengudi was part of the Los Angeles and New York avant garde in the 1960s and ’70s, her work trod its own path, diverting from the strict abstraction that ruled at the time, held back, too, by an art world that was both dominated by men and overwhelmingly white. Her radical work was championed by Linda Goode Bryant – who is coming over the Fruitmarket to give a much-anticipated talk on 19th March – in the 1970s and ’80s at the Just Above Midtown Gallery in the middle of art-land New York. And yet, “She hasn’t had the exposure that she could have had because people misread her work,” says Sillars, of a 1970s art world that thought her subtle, inclusive work wasn’t political enough, wasn’t feminist enough, or did not deal outright with topics of racial identity as they saw it. Recent major group exhibitions constructed specifically around feminism and racial identity have included Nengudi’s work, “but although it’s a vital force in her work, it is not the whole of it,” says Sillars. This exhibition will, he hopes, introduce viewers to “the many radical forms and different types of works (she has made) over the last four decades.” “The principle motive was to be expansive and show key moments throughout her career.”

The body and its movement in space has been a key element in Nengudi’s work, not least RSVP , which has been recreated in many ways and in many places since its first outing in 1977. Made whilst Nengudi was pregnant, it played on her fascination with the way her body was changing.

If the viewers’ first reaction is to “giggle at something so common as pantyhose used in sculpture,” said Nengudi once, sustained viewing shows her exploration of “the imposed tightness and packaging of one’s body”, and, by extension, the restrictions imposed on women in other ways. The works were frequently “activated” by Nengudi and fellow artist and choreographer Maren Hassinger in the early days, weaving their bodies in and out of the piece, stretching it, playing with the weighted sand “feet”.

Sillars is most pleased, he tells me, with the recreation of Nengudi’s early water sculptures, created in 1969, yet never shown or made since and a “key ambition” for the show. “She’d given up hope of seeing or working with them again,” says Sillars of the hard-to-fabricate works, which Nengudi, in Leeds for two weeks to install the exhibition, recreated with the help of a “very accomplished technician”. “The forms flunk on the plinth – everyone calls them popsicles,” he says of works which are both serious and warm, human and funny. Made, originally, to be touched and interacted with, like most of her work, their tactility must now only be imagined.

Nengudi’s key interest in not only the differences, but particularly the commonality of humanity across history and continents and religious practices is seen in another large installation not seen since the 1990s, called Sandmining, “that suggests the aftermath at a site of ritual.” There is also work that deals in the things we choose to hand down. “Bulemia” was another lost installation made in Baltimore in 1993, comprised of newspapers that Nengudi’s mother had assiduously collected for her down the years, “things which had some kind of resonance.”

“When they deinstalled the exhibition, the newspaper was all thrown away…Senga was devastated, and started collecting newspapers for her own kids,” says Sillars. That material has been used for a major new installation in this exhibition, echoing the Baltimore exhibition of 1993, but providing a whole new history in headlines. It, alongside all the other known and “lost” works, provide a hugely exciting possibility to view the key elements of Nengudi’s output over the past 50 years at a gallery, the Fruitmarket, that loves, as Sillars puts it “to shed light on the overlooked.”

Senga Nengudi, Fruitmarket Gallery, 45 Market Street, Edinburgh, 0131 225 2383, 16 March – 26 May, Daily 11am – 6pm. Linda Goode Bryant in Conversation, Tues 19 Mar, 6pm – 7pm

Don’t Miss

The late Karolina Larusdottir’s, who died just a few weeks before this Castle Gallery exhibition opened, had an upbringing in Reyjavik that sounds the stuff of a novel. The granddaughter of a strongman in a travelling circus, she spent many childhood holidays in the Hotel Borg, which her grandfather set up as Reyjavik’s first “grand hotel” in the 1930s. The Hotel and its life inspired her surrealist work, many fine examples of which are displayed on the walls of the gallery this month.

The Good Gathering: Karolina Larusdottir, Castle Gallery, 43 Castle Street, Inverness, 729512 1-30 March, Mon – Sat, 9am – 5pm

Critic’s Choice

Zembla is only a gallery sometimes, its owner Brian Robertson tells me. Neat, white cube, very modern, it is contained within a house that only came into existence some few years ago when Robertson, a retired academic who “ran away to art college in middle age”, decided to fulfil a dream and build his own house in Hawick in the Borders. With an extra room downstairs overlooking the garden, he and his wife Lesley decided to create a temporary art gallery, which opens only a few times a year but has an artistic programme which belies its size, bringing high quality work to give locals the chance to see work “not normally seen outside a city centre.”

The Spring Exhibition, titled Heat and bringing together artists who make work using heat, or are otherwise engaged with the idea of heat, is a group show that includes work by Roger Ackling, David Blackaller, experimental filmmaker Nick Collins, London-based abstract painters Carol Robertson and Trevor Sutton and Dutch minimal sculptor Cecilia Vissers. Blackaller, who curated the show, chose his cohorts based on “their shared interest in economy, simplicity, or rhythm; each working in a different abstract language, with works often echoing something of landscape or an attitude of contemplation”.

Ackling, who died in 2014, is represented by early works, the sun burning insistent lines onto found pieces of wood, a key element in his work. Blackaller uses wood that has previously had some other functional use, marking it with traces of paths taken, of objects encountered. Robertson works with reductive geometries, Vissers with notched sculptures that abstract her relationship with nature.

Heat, Zembla Gallery, Little Lindisfarne, Stirches Road, Hawick, TD9 7HF, Tel: 07843625232, 18 Mar – 14 Apr, Open by appointment only.

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