So often, artwork asks for a brainy, intellectual response. It's the art ur-question: "What does it mean?"
Less often are we asked about how the work makes us feel. And not in an emotional sense, but in a bodily sense. This is key to Senga Nengudi's art, which can be delightfully beguiling, but ultimately distancing, when you try to apply to it a head-first response.
Nengudi, who has lived in Colorado Springs and taught at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs for decades, is a highly accomplished artist with work in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art, representation by the Thomas Erben Gallery in New York, and a resumé that includes shows at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, White Cube gallery in London, and, as of last summer, two solo shows in Denver.
Now, the curators of those last two shows — Elissa Auther, who curated the RedLine Gallery show, and Nora Burnett Abrams, of the MCA Denver show — have joined the Galleries of Contemporary Art for the first solo exhibition in Nengudi's hometown, Senga Nengudi: Improvisational Gestures.
The show features work from throughout the artist's career, running from the mid '70s through 2014. Along with video art, it is split between documentation of her performance pieces and works from the acclaimed R.S.V.P. series she has built over nearly 40 years.
The R.S.V.P. pieces are among her most popular, and are made from all found objects: nylon pantyhose manipulated with sand and tacks, knotted here, bagged there with the sand, and tugged every which way, either against a wall or webbed in a corner. If they are not physically engaged by Nengudi or a collaborator, they are meant to be tangled with visually (or physically still, by walking around it, and observing its interactions within the space).
"The results are spectacular: conjuring bondage, weaving, lynching, sex, birth, and jazz, the works point to — yet always resist — direct reference," Noel Black wrote in an article for Hyperallergic last year.
"You kind of want to touch or squeeze, and it doesn't really have a lot to do with cerebral processing of that," notes Auther. "It's all about the way it feels to feel, or the way it feels to be aware of something. I guess a good way to explain is that it is radically abstract."
Adds Burnett Abrams: "I think that it's not necessarily her body that is being referenced, but kind of a universal body ... it's really talking about how bodies move, how bodies articulate, how bodies perform."
Nengudi, in a 2011 interview with MOMA Audio, added that humor is also part of it. "The first reaction is to giggle because you see something so common as pantyhose being used in sculpture. And then again, you get deeper into the piece as you stay with it."
Of course, R.S.V.P. is just one part of the large and dynamic oeuvre represented in Improvisational Gestures. The show is expected to travel, and will be accompanied by the first book devoted solely to Nengudi, with essays from the curators.