Senga Nengudi, Fisher Museum of Art, USC, Los Angeles | esse arts + opinions

Senga Nengudi, Fisher Museum of Art, USC, Los Angeles

University of Southern California (USC) Fisher Museum of Art
  • Senga Nengudi, Warp Trance, 2007, installation view, 2018. Photo: Juan Rojas, courtesy of the artist
  • Senga Nengudi & Maren Hassinger, R.S.V.P., 1977. Photo: Juan Rojas, courtesy of the artist
  • Senga Nengudi, installation view, 2018. Photo: Juan Rojas, courtesy of the artist
  • Senga Nengudi, installation view, 2018. Photo: Juan Rojas, courtesy of the artist
  • Senga Nengudi, Untitled (R.S.V.P.), 2013. Photo: Juan Rojas, courtesy of the artist
  • Senga Nengudi, Ceremony for Freeway Fets, 1978, Pico Blvd. Los Angeles, detail. Photo: Juan Rojas, courtesy of the artist
  • Senga Nengudi, R.S.V.P., 1978. Photo: courtesy of the artist

Senga Nengudi: Improvisational Gestures
University of Southern California (USC) Fisher Museum of Art, Los Angeles, January 20–April 14, 2018
Curated by Elissa Auther and Nora Abrams

Art is relational, or so it seems after walking through Senga Nengudi: Improvisational Gestures at the University of Southern California (USC) Fisher Museum of Art. In the exhibition, the artist best known for her participation in the Los Angeles 1970s avant-garde is celebrated for her explorations of blackness, the female body, African and Japanese Dance, music, and religious rituals. In this iteration, the travelling exhibition’s fourth venue, the show carries a strong message about the critical and conceptual potential of interdisciplinary practices. Now in her mid-seventies, Nengudi’s work from the 1970s onwards resonates with contemporary aesthetics and discourse surrounding materiality, performance art, installation, and participation. Providing a selective window into her career as a multifaceted maker, the exhibition only begins to reveal the full extent of Nengudi’s artistic significance.

The show revolves largely around the R.S.V.P. sculptures, a series the artist began in 1975. Combining everyday materials such as pantyhose, rubber, and found metal into outstretched anthropomorphic forms, the sculptures occupy the gallery space with great dynamism. Although they are completely immobile and composed of ordinary and used parts, the structures gesture outwards recreating the kinesthetic sensation of a moving and/or dancing body. Nengudi also intended them to be activated through performance, as demonstrated in a striking colour photograph of fellow artist (and frequent collaborator) Maren Hassinger, from a live event in the late 1970s. Here, Hassinger engages the work like an instrument, answering the invitation to “please respond.”

Ceremony for Freeway Fets (1978), a performance that took place underneath a freeway overpass on Pico Boulevard in downtown Los Angeles, is another critical work on display. Taking place just a few kilometres away from the USC campus, Nengudi’s collaborative ethos comes alive in large colour photographs documenting the original event. Enlisting fellow artists David Hammons, Franklin Parker, and Ulysses Jenkins, amongst others, the performance highlights the interdisciplinary and ritualistic elements of Nengudi’s practice as the urban concrete underbelly of the freeway is transformed into a site of collective dance and music making. Commissioned by CETA (California’s Comprehensive Employment and Training Act program), which supported artists working in public settings, the artists play on traditional gender roles through improvisatory movement and costume. They also explore collective ceremonial rituals of faith and spirituality through symbolic objects and choreography.

Throughout the 1980s, Nengudi continued to work collaboratively in events including Get Up (1980) and Flying (1982). A selection of colour photographs, programs, and posters, sheds light on her evolving performative process. The most recent work on view, Warp Trance (2007), a room-sized, multi-channel audiovisual installation with a sound composition by Butch Morris, completes the exhibition. Projections crawl across a perforated hanging structure of jacquard punch cards bleeding onto the back wall, as overwhelming industrial sounds envelop the space. Repurposing a system that revolutionized the production of textiles and the earliest predecessor to computer programming, Nengudi evocatively distorts the audience’s relationship to discarded objects, labouring bodies, and the space they share. True to form, the exhibition will close with a one-day symposium on April 14, during which the R.S.V.P. sculptures will be reactivated by Nengudi in collaboration with performers Cheryl Banks-Smith and Breeze Smith.

Didier Morelli is a PhD Candidate in Performance Studies at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois. His dissertation focuses on the relationship between the built environment and the kinesthetic nature of performing bodies. He has been published in Canadian Theatre Review, C Magazine, and Decoy Magazine. Forthcoming articles to appear in esse arts + opinions (2018) and TDR: The Drama Review (2018). As an interdisciplinary artist, Morelli combines practice and research in both his academic and performative explorations.

Published on April 3, 2018


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