El Anatsui at Jack Shainman Gallery

Magic Carpets by an African Artist

By: - Mar 10, 2010

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El Anatsui
Jack Shainman Gallery
513 West 20th Street
New York, 10011
212 645 1701
February 10 to March 13

When I Last Wrote To You About Africa
Curated by Lisa Binder
Royal Ontario Museum
Toronto, Canada
Opens, October 2, 2010

During the 2007 Venice Biennale it was difficult to find the Palazzo Fortuny. We struggled to make our way over bridges and through a maze of narrow alleys. There were four of us including Astrid's cousin from Berlin, Horst Hiemer, an actor, and his wife Bettina.

We continued to search  at my insistence. From what I had read the exhibition at the Palazzo Fortuny was the must see highlight of the Biennale which sprawled all over the city. Always there is the matter of picking and choosing. For such events there is a beat the clock intensity based on the time allotted to spend in one of the most beautiful and expensive cities in the world.

There is an added issue of stamina as Venice is entirely a walking city. There are jump off spots by vaparetto along the Grand Canal. From there, with dense maps, it is a matter of hoofing it.

We turned yet another corner and then again. After a few more twists and turns we emerged into a small, densely damp, dark and atmospheric courtyard. There was the ancient palazzo. It did indeed display one of the most intriguing exhibitions of a lifetime. Hints of it linger in memory. There was an exotic confluence of wunderkammer objects, collected for their specimen appeal. Including various embalmed body parts and a shrunken head. Mixed with master works by Arte Povere and Zero masters as well as other blue chip modernists.

Our first impression of the Palazzo was an enormous, intricately patterned hanging by the African artist El Anatsui. While a new work it seemed to meld seamlessly into the ancient Venetian ambiance. It clung to the façade with rippling, irregular textures becoming a growth and veneer of the Italian Gothic architecture. Arguably, the artist's work will never find a more perfect setting.

More of his work was displayed in the not entirely successful Biennale curated by Robert Storr. In this context the magic carpets of El Anatsui were knockouts . They are fabricated by the patient and meticulous assembly of tesserae from discarded pop cans and the foil that wraps the tops of fancy bottles. The work has the added insight of being created with recycled materials in an inventive and passionate manner. He emerged from the 2007 Biennale as one of the great stars of that ill fated project. The work was stunning in such a morass of general mediocrity and shop worn art stars. One did not have to travel to Venice just to see the New York friends of the curator.

Yet again we were floored to see a sumptuous, stunning exhibition of new works by El Anatsui his second for Jack Shainman's Gallery. Coming on the last few days of the show, there had been a work displayed in Shainman's booth during the art fairs, most of the works had sold. The prices for the few that remained averaged $650,000 each.

While relatively new to the New York, which is to say, the international art world, the artist is past mid career. He was born in Anyako, Ghana in 1944. He is a Professor of Sculpture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukha, where he has lectured since 1975.. He was included in the 1990 Venice Biennale and the Johannesburg Biennale in 1995. So he has been known by curators on the circuit but his breakthrough has occurred in the past few years.

The concept of the work has its limits and one wonders just how he will continue to develop and dazzle viewers. There is the matter of scale. These very large wall hangings are described as sculptures because of their relief aspects. The artist allows for museum curators and gallerists to install them as they see fit. He encourages irregularity. But museum curators, often overly educated particularly on matters of conservation,  draw critical remarks from the artist.

The gallery press release states that "He has preferences- horizontal ripples are preferable to vertical ones- but he doesn't regard any particular arrangement as final." The artist comments that "Museum people are trained not to be creative. I find that very frustrating."

The fact that a major artist such as El Anatsui has been "discovered" in his 60's says a lot about the relatively recent globalization of the art world. I have known and followed Jack Shainman (a native of Williamstown, Mass.) for decades since his first gallery in Provincetown, then Washington, D.C.,  before Chelsea. It has been interesting to follow the arc of his taste and development. His partner, the French Canadian artist, Claude Simard, shares a passion for Africa and African American artists. They were early to make this a focus of their program. Today they are the consistently most interesting and evocative of the mainstream New York galleries.

While this exhibition ends in New York there will be a museum exhibition to look forward to this fall in Toronto. It promises to be magnificent.