One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. That’s a concept that Ghana-born abstract artist El Anatsui seems to thrive on. Twelve of his best pieces are being shown at the Akron Art Museum (AAM), a Knight Arts grantee, in a mammoth display called “Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui.”
Anatsui takes the detritus of his continent — liquor bottle caps, milk cans, aluminum printing plates, reclaimed wood and the like — and crushes and bends and twists them into tiny pieces that he weaves into huge hangings that look amazingly like fabric tapestries from afar.
Take his roughly 9.5 -by-17-foot work called “Dzesi II, 2006,” which AAM purchased the same year (2007) that Anatsui gained international attention at the Venice Biannale.
The few times I’ve stood with museum newbies before this work, the response has pretty much been the same — “I’m not into tapestry.” That is, until they get closer and see that what they took for fabric is in fact a vast interweaving of metal liquor bottle caps.
With this exhibit, viewers have even more opportunities to be amazed. Anatsui’s 12 pieces hang throughout special galleries, but they also spill into the lobby area and rooms dedicated to permanent collections.
Based on size alone they generate considerable “wow” factor. They are not small.
AAM has 30-foot ceilings and generally 40-walls. Anatsui’s pieces fill them. His “Gli” or “Wall” takes up a whole room, forming a kind of mystical labyrinth through which you can walk — and wonder as to what is going on in this five-part work.
It’s Anatsui’s fascination with human symbols, for one thing. He is taken by the idea of walls — like the Berlin Wall and its huge overtones of political might and strife or the Jerusalem Wailing Wall and the connotations of religious belief and fervor. Those are big ideas, and Anatsui has big art to match them.
What’s also cool about his wall hangings is that they don’t just hang there. They drape and curve and spill and shimmer.
His work “Earth’s Skin” reveals the simple and restrained color palette the artist uses, but shows his gift for abstract concepts. The work seems to undulate and heave — a concrete metaphor of his idea.
Anatsui works in other media — or has. Two acrylic and wax on paper paintings (“Zuma” and “Kente Reminiscence” which are both from 1984) underline his penchant for native tradition. Kente is a familiar and recognizable weaving pattern that reappears in his works.
“Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui” on exhibit through October 7, Wednesday-Sunday. At Akron Art Museum; 1 South High, Akron; 330-376-9185; www.akronartmuseum.org. Tickets $5-$7.