BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Combining aesthetic traditions from his native Ghana, his adopted home of Nigeria and global abstract themes, El Anatsui has gained worldwide recognition for the originality and power of his works. Converting found materials into a new medium that straddles the boundary between painting and sculpture, he has produced a body of work that is at once awe-inspiring, enigmatic and compelling.
Employing a kind of alchemy, Anatsui transforms discarded objects in ways that raise issues of global consumerism and highlight the blurring of geographical identities. His works can take on radically different shapes with each installation, since he gives curators and designers freedom to install his art in ways that maximize their particular exhibition space, highlighting the intricacy of each piece.
The huge and breathtaking oeuvre of this new international art star is amply demonstrated in “Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui,” on view at the Brooklyn Museum through August 4. Organized by Ellen Rudolph of the Akron Museum of Art, and curated in Brooklyn by the museum’s Kevin Dumouchelle, the exhibition comprises more than 30 primarily large-scale works in metal and wood.
Born in 1944 in Ghana, Anatsui is the son of a fisherman who was a master weaver of kente cloth. He is the last of his father’s 33 children by five wives. Anatsui received a BA and a postgraduate degree from Ghana’s University of Science and Technology, and steeped himself in Ghanaian cultural traditions. Starting in the late 1960s, he created a series of wall pieces that featured incisions of Ghanaian symbols of myth and memory made with hot irons on round wooden trays acquired at local markets. These works are characteristic of much of his future output — relying on mediums close at hand, portability and abstraction.
“Conspirators,” 1997, a colorfully painted wooden relief, was the kind of work that made the artist well known in Africa, albeit not yet in the wider art world.
After making art for 30 years, Anatsui’s big breakthrough came when he began making hanging metal sheets, “now regarded in the international art world as among the most conceptually complex objects being made today,” writes African art expert Susan Mullin Vogel in the catalog. The complexity of Anatsui’s metal hangings, primarily made of used aluminum bottle tops, continues his practice of creating works that blur the margins between painting, sculpture, graphics and ceramics.
Such work captured the attention of the art world at the 2007 Venice Biennale, where a pair of Anatsui’s shimmering, tapestrylike hangings fashioned from discarded soda cans became a hit of the exhibition. That same year, Anatsui transformed the four-story front wall of Venice’s graceful Palazzo Fortuny by covering it with an enormous metal hanging. Wrapped around the facade like a second skin, this sight attracted much favorable comment.
Most works on view are hanging pieces created over the last few years, demonstrating what curator Dumouchelle calls “a medium that is an entirely new medium. It’s not quite painting, not quite sculpture, and it’s also breathtaking.”
The artist’s concern about the environment is clear in his huge “Earth’s Skin,” 2009, made of aluminum and copper wire and measuring a hefty 177 by 394 inches. The topographical wrinkles within this mesmerizing hanging reflect universal dismay about decay and regeneration. Despoliation of the Earth is the theme of another enormous, ridged metal hanging, “Ozone Layer,” 2010.
An interesting aspect of Anatsui’s work is the manner in which he has bucked the idea that metal is a stiff, rigid medium by showing it as a soft, malleable material capable of being shaped into varied forms and adapted to specific spaces. A case in point is “Drainpipe,” 2010. Made of tin can lids and copper wire, it can be laid out by curators in a variety of shapes.
Anatsui’s most unusual gift has been his much admired use of ordinary aluminum bottle tops for art making. “I could spend the rest of my career using bottle caps,” he says, “because there’s an open-mindedness — a sense of freedom present in this medium.” Anatsui began using bottle tops by chance. “The first bag of bottle caps I found thrown away in the bush,” he recalls. Asking people where he could find more, he discovered that Nigerian distilleries made the twist-off liquor bottle tops. After a time, he realized he had found the ideal material for his art — locally made, in ready supply and culturally significant.
One masterpiece with architectural dimensions is “Gli (Wall),” 2010, an aluminum tops and copper wire, transparent, veil-like hanging that transects a gallery from floor to ceiling. As the artist once said, “My concept of a wall is something that not only hides but reveals things. Your eyes can’t see behind it, but your imagination projects and your curiosity is aroused.”
Anatsui’s affinity for malleability of cloth is reflected in another standout, “Red Block,” 2010, an audacious leap into a one-color extravaganza, at once spare and opulent. Consisting of two brightly hued pieces, each measuring a whopping 200¾ by 131½ inches, it is both commanding and appealing.
Complementing the Brooklyn exhibition, High Line Art, the newish art space in lower Manhattan, is displaying through the summer Anatsui’s immense “Broken Bridge II,” 2012, his largest outdoor installation to date. Attached to a building façade and made of mixed media, metal graters and reflective material, this spectacular work gives narcissistic New York — aka the world’s art capital — an unusual view of itself. Standing about 33 feet high and 107 feet wide, it is hard to miss.
Vogel’s illustrated, 176-page book, El Anatsui: Art and Life, serves as exhibition catalog. Insightful and expansive, it explores the themes of the artist’s work, the influence of his Nigerian University intellectual community and his creative studio practice. Published by Prestel, it sells for $60, hardcover.
The Brooklyn Museum is at 200 Eastern Parkway. For information, 718-638-5000 or www.brooklynmuseum.org.