Senga Nengudi Thematic Essay

14 12 2009

“I relish in Creating art wherever my I my lazy eye finds it,” writes Senga Nengudi as persona Lily Bea Moor in her poem, “Lilies of Valley Unite! Or not.” The line sings of an artist whose capacity to unleash the expressive power of quotidian materials has transformed spaces through performance and installation since the 1970s. Things torn and discarded—pantyhose, newspaper, masking tape— are imbued with metaphor in Nengudi’s hands. In R.S.V.P (1976) worn nylons stretch like spider webs from one wall to another. Weighed down by sections of sand, and sometimes a scrap of metal, the pantyhose reference the women’s bodies that they once garmented. Splaying nylons across the gallery until its multicolored skins are at the point of breaking, Senga Nengudi knits significance anew.

Interconnectivity is a thematic element within this oeuvre where materials and performance transcend artistic genre and tie together cross-cultural influences. In Nengudi’s sand-painting, From One Source Many Rivers (2004), pools of blue and currents of deep ochre drifted through the spot-lit museum interior.  Shown at Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburg, the site synthesized techniques from Tibetan mandalas, Navajo sand paintings, and aboriginal ground paintings. “I like to dance with space I occupy,” reports Nengudi, and this installation echoed that statement in the traces of sand, pigments and fossils that the artist left in her wake.

Rhythm underscores the play of sound, light, and innovation in works such as Warp Trance (2007), which was a project that she designed while Artist in Residence at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Pennsylvania. Weaving together themes of art and labor, this installation created a hypnotic environment by projecting audio and video recordings from textile mills onto recycled Jacquard punch card panels. As such, visitors were inundated with the collusion of the mechanical pasts and digital futures that the Jacquard loom signifies.

Nengudi also draws inspiration from interpersonal relationships, even as she creates them. For instance, her ongoing performance “Walk a mile in my shoes,” sends shoes to others in the U.S. and abroad with the request her recipients to walk/dance a full mile in the shoes and return their documentation. Collaborative projects are recurrent events; in addition to her long time friendship with Maren Hassinger, Nengudi has worked with performance artists such as David Hammons, Lorraine O’Grady and Houston Conwill.

by Diane Woodin

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