Alien Polka Ponder, 2003 signed and dated 'Wangechi Mutu 2003' (lower right) ink, acrylic, sequins and collage on paper 48 x 36in. (121.9 x 91.4cm)
PROVENANCE: Kravets Wehby, New York. Private Collection. Harris Lieberman, New York. Private Collection.
The beautiful and the grotesque come together vibrantly in the singular mixed media work of Wangechi Mutu. Kenyan born and New York based, Mutu creates dreamily disorienting figures that navigate the complicated socio-political terrain of women through the lens of popular culture using materials such as cut-outs from medical text books and ethnographic, fashion and pornography magazines, sequins, ink, pearls, watercolor and objects from the natural world, such as soil and pigment.
Educated at both Cooper Union and Yale University, Mutu possesses the steady and unorthodox hand of an intellectual draftswoman and the surreal leanings of her predecessors such as Salvador Dali and Hieronymus Bosch, both of whom were fixated on unsettling shapes emerging from simple landscapes. Not merely concerned with the outward body and all the judgments placed upon it by a variety of international audiences Mutu allows her figures to glow from within, the astral and cosmic planes just as vital when considering the physiology of the individual as it interacts with the world around it. Mutu's juxtaposition of animals on top of women on top of medical maladies on top of hybrid plant forms may seem jagged and haphazard, but each shape intentionally creates the next, supplying a beautiful feast containing multiple and alluring parts.
Mutu confronts not only ideas and the ideals of female beauty, but the violence and objectification that women endure, most strikingly in her native Africa, and the inspired fetishism of black women in Western culture. The exotic does not become the erotic, but rather the endangered in Mutu's work, as dismembered figures marry themselves to the very violence that threatens them, forging a bold and new identity for the viewer.
Mutu's work has been shown in prestigious institutions and galleries such as London's Tate Modern, the Miami Art Museum, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Studio Museum in Harlem, catapulting her status as an international heavyweight among contemporary artists. With Alien Polka Ponder Mutu's trademarks are on display; the solo female figure glamorously reclining amidst shapes reminiscent of mollusks and other sea creatures, her gaze distorted, eyes bulging from a head much too large for the body suggesting layer upon dissected layer. It is an image both organic and not, with a palate reminiscent of hyper-pixilated projections found in fashion magazines and forms indebted to plant and animal life, such as the smudged origins of fern-like ribbons snaking from the figure's torso like so many entrails. The white space leaves room for the imagination and the surrounding shapes to travel, creating a unique fluidity not often found in other Mutu pieces where the background can be just as busy as the foreground to enhance the unsettling geometry of the central, fixed motif. The figure is both at home among the organic shapes and consumed by them, camouflaged by her leopard-esque spots matching those that float around her.
Like much of Mutu's work, Alien Polka Ponder is both seductive and unseemly; the viewer is drawn to the familiar outline of a woman and then made to question the strangeness that the outline inhabits. But beauty, in the realm of Mutu, is a strange entity, something at once a gift and curse that can terrify as well as excite. The question that haunts Mutu's work is never 'why beautiful?' but 'how beautiful?' and the terms set by the artist and the materials she uses create a visual experience that turn what can be our most striking features such as eyes, lips, legs and hands into exaggerated vehicles for repulsion and, ultimately, revelation.
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