Art » Art Feature

Gimme Shelter

Wangechi Mutu and Adrienne Outlaw seek solace in an uncertain world.



New York collage artist Wangechi Mutu and Nashville sculptor Adrienne Outlaw have filled two towering Memphis galleries with works of art that are both disturbing and beautiful.

In the cavernous Art Museum of the University of Memphis, a million points of light dance on the nail heads that cover Shelter, the centerpiece of Outlaw's exhibition. More than 350 volunteers worked 10 hours a day for just over a year hammering 1.2 million nails into the nylon mesh of Shelter's 7-by-3-by-5-foot rib-vaulted frame. Bigger than a rib cage and smaller than a Gothic church, this shimmering piece of sculpture/architecture is just large enough to cup the viewer who steps inside.

To create a haunting mock-up of the temporal world just outside her small sleek sanctuary, Outlaw wrapped worn bed sheets soaked with acrylic resin around student volunteers and created 14 ghostly body forms that lie on the gallery floor or hang from AMUM's ceiling like vigilante lynchings, carcasses in a meat locker, or giant pupae struggling to free themselves from cocoons. The rusty barrel hoops cradling several of the muslin shrouds bring to mind nature's cycles of life/death/decay/life.

Near the ceiling, a cocoon Outlaw cast from silken, translucent material shimmers like a chrysalid Shroud of Turin carrying the hope of new life.

At AMUM through January 13th

There is no shelter, no safe haven in Wangechi Mutu's "Sleeping Heads Lie." For this exhibition, Mutu gouged holes in Power House's already deteriorating walls, spattered them with red paint, and created a war zone.

Acrylic paint, ink, and images from National Geographic, high-fashion journals, and pornographic magazines make up the eight untitled collages from Mutu's "Sleeping Heads" series, which lines the walls of Power House's upstairs gallery.

In each collage, a prone, graceful figure's armless torso and shaved head are crammed with wildly disparate images that read like dreams, the rush of images that sometimes accompanies the throes of death, and the memories of a New York artist who grew up in Eastern Africa in Kenya's capital city, Nairobi.

Snakes crawl over the cheek and chin of one of the "Sleeping Heads" collages. Rivers of red flow throughout the cranium of another, and a head wound splatters blood across the collage's translucent Mylar surface. The beautiful mahogany and ebony skin tones of another figure are mottled with disease, and the teeth have been replaced by the incisors of a large predator. Severed arms and hands that lie across a fourth figure's open mouth, cheek, and throat reference Africa's children and adults who have been mutilated because they refuse to mine diamonds or fight as soldiers.

Black and dark-blue mourning apparel hang from eight clothes lines that stretch across the walls of Power House's south gallery. The gallery is silent, empty -- the mourned and the mourners have vanished. Clothing left on the lines and pans of water left on electric hot plates suggest the people were taken suddenly, hauled off, perhaps, to work in mines, to fight, or to be executed and buried in shallow graves. Mutu alludes to Africa's killing fields by tinting the water in the pans a rusty red (suggesting pollution and blood) and painting the concrete floor, in an otherwise somber gallery, a dark saturate red.

Reds no longer splatter from the wounds of a maimed people in Mutu's largest collage, The Jini. Instead, they flow as ebullient washes that take on the shape of a sultry-eyed, whiskered, fiery serpent. This aroused dragon spews out jewelry and motorcycles in what could be Mutu's vision of an awakened Africa sloughing off brutality and the slave labor that produces expensive baubles for the West.

At the Power House through December 23rd

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