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JCAL’s ‘Creatures’ mildly disturbing

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I went to “Creatures,” the exhibit now at Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning featuring the works of Nigerian born artist Wangechi Mutu, expecting to see an alternative version of those awful Steve Madden collages of those trailer trash honeys one finds in the subway.

What I discovered was nothing like it: Mutu’s work is angry, scary and passionate, but with a weird beauty, and even a feral playfulness. Her women, many of whom are captured in the process of morphing into beasts or space aliens are made up of bubbles and cells (these tiny, numinous, pastel colored bubbles show up so often in artwork lately, especially in the works of Callie Danae Hirsch and David Webster that there must be a formal name for them) along with bits of jewels and human and animal bodies cut out of fashion magazines and coffee table books that are then rearranged to produce uniquely disturbing creatures.

The painted lips are usually outsized compared to the size of the head — the eyes spread too far apart, the bodies misshapen and lumpy. The works, mostly untitled but gathered into a series, are done mostly on mylar or paper, and confront the viewer with Western society’s take on women, and especially women of color, as irrational, dangerous, and indeed, animalistic.

Mutu’s women/creatures are, in fact, wild and dangerous, and happy to be so. The first thing I noticed was a large work where a leering woman holds a machete (a common theme with these works) while black rats run over her feet while she sits in a forest of black and white polka dotted mushrooms.

In another work a woman wears a gorgeous headdress of glittery green snakeskin and a triple choker of pale glitter. Another work, which has been applied directly to two walls, shows a centipede-like creature with the untampered head of a real woman. Wires that have been embedded into the wall spring from her body like the irritant hairs on a caterpillar, along with surprisingly delicate pearl tipped pins. Sometimes Mutu writes bitter little musings in her works, and she has in this one, which deals, at least on the surface, with the exploitation of indigenous blacks by the Boers who “prepare to poison ... for the right to party ...”

A smaller room in the gallery shows a series of women transforming, sometimes painfully, into African beasts in a way that recalls “The Island of Doctor Moreau.” Two hyena-headed woman pose together and share what looks like a piece of beef jerky between their grinning hyena fangs. Their bodies are collages of bubbles and snakeskin.

In another work a leopard woman triumphantly hoists a large half-mammal, half-fish creature across her shoulders. The legend says, “It’s so much easier to hunt you ... now that you've admitted you’re afraid of Me.” In other works “real” animals are mutilated and tortured. The bold and bright colors and even cheerful flower decals in the works don’t detract from their scariness, but actually enhance it.

In another large work another woman/creature holds a machete edged with gold while surrounded by more day-glo mushrooms and discs that seem to be of polished stone. Two cattle horns protrude from the top of the picture.

In another part of the gallery, wickedly pointed horns like the ones in the above mentioned work curve out dangerously from the walls, while ropes that recall jungle vines loop down from the ceiling. In the midst of it all an upside down bottle hangs from the ceiling, draped with vines.

Creatures is not for the fainthearted, but worth a visit. The exhibit will be up through April 12 at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, 161-04 Jamaica Ave. Call 718-658-7400.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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