New York

View of “Wangechi Mutu,” 2017. Photo: David Regen.

View of “Wangechi Mutu,” 2017. Photo: David Regen.

Wangechi Mutu

Gladstone Gallery | West 21st St

View of “Wangechi Mutu,” 2017. Photo: David Regen.

Absent from “Ndoro Na Miti,” Wangechi Mutu’s latest exhibition at Gladstone Gallery, were her signature collage elements—the magazine lips, eyes, and limbs and the cut-up animal imagery that have previously marked the fantastical, hybrid female protagonists in her work. The only paper on view was in the form of pulp. The Kenyan-born, Brooklyn-based artist mixed it with wood glue and red soil to form many of the austere and otherworldly objects in her show, whose title translates from Gikuyu as “Mud and Trees.” With her striking installation of figurative and abstract sculptures, most of them on plain pedestals of varying heights, Mutu evoked an artful museum display of mysterious treasures—geological and iconographic—from an excavated holy site, clues to a mythological matriarchy.

Prayer Beads, 2016, an earthen version of the devotional item rendered at an unnerving scale, occupied the middle of the gallery floor, arranged in a wavy ring, as if placed on an altar by a giant. Behind the big beads, the sleek, life-size Water Woman, 2017, commanded a low platform, her back turned to the gallery entrance. A pregnant mermaid with an exceptionally long tail, she leans rearward on webbed hands with an expression of cool contemplation, her pointed breasts echoing the shape of her head fin. The statue’s stylized form and dark patina recall the carved ebony figures of traditional Makonde art, as does the gleaming sculpture of a woman’s head positioned nearby. This second Dreamer, also from this year, with its burnished golden finish and disembodied, angelic side-sleeping pose, is very Brancusi. Mutu pointedly reminds us, as she plays up her heavy sculpture’s distinctly African hairstyle and Makonde-mask angles, which continent was a frequent muse to European modernists.

Water Woman and Dreamer were the cast-bronze exceptions to the rule, though, bringing smooth surfaces and tonal variation to the show’s rough textures and constrained palette. Other materials in the mix included mass-produced, dryer-lint-like gray blankets, the kind distributed by humanitarian relief workers, which Mutu scrunched, draped, and let harden into drab peaks recalling haunted coral, mold, or lava; and then, of course, there was the muddy, ocher-colored medium that dominated the show. Strangely versatile, in Tree Woman, 2016, the pulpy material constitutes the virile musculature of the formidable figure posing in a force field of gnarled branches like a supernatural, maybe prehistoric, pinup girl, while in the entrancing bust Rose Quartz, also from last year, the red-soil mixture feels more abject, crusty, holding the titular pink crystals aloft on the spines of a strange crown emerging from the skull, it seems, of a boil-covered, possibly royal, subject.

The fourteen ominous spherical sculptures stationed around the gallery, made out of the same rusty stuff, each patterned differently—with spikes, blisters, or raised lines—were the most puzzling aspect of, and maybe the key to, Mutu’s poetic but inscrutable web of symbols and references. They evoke both asteroids and medieval weapons, but are, in fact, modeled on virus cells. That’s three very different ways to die. While we look with awe and even hope to the visionary artist’s syncretic, animistic, slyly pop-inflected heroines, we can’t miss their entanglements in the tragically real story lines of colonialism, war, epidemic, and catastrophe. “Ndoro Na Miti,” with its uncanny mix of the ancient and the futuristic, and its un-naive passion for the glamour of the natural world, had as much to say about new myths and modes of extinction as it did about novel acts of creation.

Johanna Fateman