BY Alexander Mahany
For one of the most famous colorists in the contemporary art world, it was a shock to hear El Anatsui detail his devotion to gray and its many shades. Anatsui spoke at Mnuchin Gallery for the occasion of his new exhibition, “Metas,” which opened yesterday at the gallery’s East 78th Street location and runs through December 13.
“I like gray because it is neutral; it is neither black nor white,” said El Anatsui, 69. “There has always been gray in my work. Sometimes, it is hard to see with the colors. Gray is the color of the insides. Sometimes it was on the back (of the work), so you don’t see. But it’s there, I know it’s there.”
“Metas” is the Ghanaian artist’s first exhibition on the Upper East Side, and his first show in New York since his “Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui” retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum in 2013. It is presented in collaboration with Jack Shainman Gallery, whose 24th Street location is mounting a sister show, “Trains of Thought,” which runs through November 15.
Anatsui said that the antique setting of Mnuchin Gallery, which is housed in a historic townhouse, interested him. “It’s not just a white box,” he said. “I thought it was a great opportunity to use a space that has a peculiarity to it, all the moldings, the details.”
Anatsui has made his career by building large, grand objects out of small, ordinary ones. Much of the work here, all of it from 2014, is similarly luminous and meticulous, made of the artist’s signature liquor bottle caps hammered and stitched together with copper wire into shimmering, infinitely malleable, porous tableaux that are half-tapestry and half-sculpture.
In his “Metas” series, Anatsui has traded the brilliance and vibrancy of his color for a more muted exploration of form and texture to thrilling, disorienting effect. Made of dulled metal bottle caps and newsprint transformed by printing plates—a new method and medium for the artist—these works still play with light and the transformation of everyday materials, but there is a softness and tactility not always present in his more baroque, bauble-like creations. These soft murals have ripples and waves, peaks and valleys, crests and falls, and, in their subdued attention-to-detail, invite intense scrutiny towards their many component parts.
“I didn’t want to work with anything with too much color,” said Anatsui, simply. “I wanted to keep it silent because there are already so many things going on.”
Robert Mnunchin, the founder of the gallery and an avid art collector for the past five decades, stressed how rare it was for a decorated artist to try something new. “The courage that it takes to change, especially for so successful an artist, is immense,” he said. “El could have rested on his laurels, and given us what we expected, but instead he is still changing, still stretching, and for that we should be grateful.”