San Francisco

View of “Wangechi Mutu,” 2021. Photo: Gary Sexton.

View of “Wangechi Mutu,” 2021. Photo: Gary Sexton.

Wangechi Mutu

A bronze cast of Auguste Rodin’s Thinker, 1880–81, has long welcomed visitors to the exterior courtyard of the Legion of Honor, a faux-French edifice built in the 1920s through the efforts of Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, wife of sugar magnate Adolph B. Spreckels. The city-affiliated museum primarily focuses on European art. Its sister museum, the de Young, is where collections of art from the Americas, Oceania, and Africa are housed. Like many cultural repositories of its era, the Legion is steeped in constructed narratives.

Given its setting, at the coastal edge of San Francisco, this museum is as Western as it gets. So it has appropriately been a site for a series of conceptual airings-out that have explored the legacies of colonialism and other issues embedded within the institutionalization of art. Wangechi Mutu’s exhibition here, “I Am Speaking, Are You Listening?,” is the sixth in a series of shows that engage with the Legion’s holdings. (Previous iterations, overseen by curator Claudia Schmuckli, included works by Urs Fischer and Sarah Lucas.) While the strategy is familiar, Mutu’s presentation graciously and effectively juxtaposes her output—sculptures (done in bronze and more earthy materials), collages, and a new video—with historical works of European art.

Mutu radically shifts the equation, starting at the museum’s entrance: Four of her bronze sculptures surround the Rodin. On platforms beneath The Thinker are two anonymous female figures, lying faceup beneath casts of woven mats. The contours of their bodies are articulated, but we can see only their dark metal forearms, hands with long glossy fingernails painted mauve, and feet shod in actual open-toed pumps, similarly colored. They are titled Shavasana I and Shavasana II, both 2019, and named for the corpse pose in yoga, but they hardly evoke any form of spiritual discipline—indeed, these figures are dead bodies. Rodin’s work seems to stare impassively at the scene.

Near the Shavasana figures are two other large bronzes that depict animal/human hybrids: Crocodylus and Mama Ray, both 2020. Their stylized surfaces are patterned after alligator and manta-ray skins, but their armor-like ribbing and musculature also suggest sci-fi creatures from a big-budget monster movie, an effect reinforced by the sculptures’ size and heft. These are major, expensively produced objects and welcome examples of the way in which Mutu’s practice has evolved dimensionally from the delicately corporeal collages that made her famous at the start of her career. But I found the human-scale works inside the museum more affecting.

Several of the works in the galleries are made from porous natural materials, including curvy weathered branches, soil, charcoal, and paper pulp. These pieces challenge the museum’s paintings and sculptures by being defiantly organic, even ephemeral, in their aura. All emulate female human figures, and some are adorned with swaths of synthetic hair, mirrors, and textiles. They are boldly glamorous; the works’ elegant twists of smooth, gnarled driftwood form sturdy, shapely limbs, while colored feathers and fringed fabric add a punch of runway energy. They stand and recline like stylized couture models made of twigs and reddish mud, risen from the earth.

Some of Mutu’s sculptures are studded with shells, such as Seeing Cowries, 2020, an abstract triangular sculpture with hair and a leathery skin that recalls that of a bat. The work’s reference to African art and objects lends it a sacred charge, and it is installed near a selection of religious paintings from the Legion’s collection. It also seems to guard the entrance to the gallery containing My Cave Call, 2020. This lush, mystical, twelve-and-a-half-minute video features the artist reclining on a blanket in a verdant wood, a bucolic setting that could have been pulled from a painting by Édouard Manet. The artist reads and dozes as the air is flooded by scores of animated moths. The camera then descends below ground and takes us inside the Suswa Cave, a holy site in Kenya. Here, Mutu transforms into an otherworldly creature whose arms become horns that gracefully emit trails of smoke, a mist that ultimately overtakes the location. With this installation, Mutu manages something analogous, as the presence of these works extends beyond itself, adding an alternative narrative that is both generous and challenging.