AKRON, Ohio -- "Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui" at the Akron Art Museum is a magical exhibition featuring works that are regal in scale, color and form, and an almost alchemic transformation of the unlikely materials used.
The artworks occupy the museum with an organic energy, appearing first in the lobby and inhabiting contemporary galleries as well as the changing exhibition rooms, standing independently and hung upon walls, seeping at times onto and across floor space.
Mr. Anatsui, who was born in 1944 in Ghana and resides in Nigeria, is a globally recognized contemporary artist twice exhibited at the Venice Biennale (1990 and 2007). The Akron museum was privileged to organize the exhibition because of an earlier commitment to the artist. It will travel next to the Brooklyn Museum in New York.
Akron was the first U.S. contemporary art museum to purchase an Anatsui work, in 2006, said director Mitchell Kahan. Previous to that, the artist was collected by museums of African art and ethnography.
"Every curator of African art has known about El's work for decades," Mr. Kahan said during a June program with the artist. "Somehow curators of contemporary art remained out of the loop."
In 2006, the Akron recognized that Mr. Anatsui's work surpassed anthropological categorizations and purchased "Dzesi II," which means "sign" or "identity" in the language of the Ewe, Mr. Anatsui's ancestors. The 117-by-195-by 8-inch work is installed near Frank Stella's 1981 "Diepholz," rule-breaking in its time for material and for pushing out from the two-dimensional plane, inviting comparisons.
"Dzesi II," as with the several large-scale, wall-mounted works in the exhibition proper, appears part abstract painting, part tapestry. But it is neither. These pieces comprise hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of discarded liquor bottle caps, flattened and painstakingly joined by tiny lengths of slender copper wire. At times the caps are folded, or otherwise reconfigured, as in "Amemo (Mask of Humankind)."
"They don't say much if they're individuals," Mr. Anatsui said in June. "I thought, if I bring them together, the voice will be very loud." In 2006, "Dzesi II" was the largest work he'd sold. Since then, he's installed his creations on building facades and is working on a piece that is 90 feet long.
He came by the caps serendipitously, finding a bag of them while on an errand. They may have been headed for the trash bin, but Mr. Anatsui eschews the categorization "recycling," preferring "transformed." The materials are often transcendent, as when panels of rusted milk can lids, configured into the free-standing "foothills" of "Peak" in the museum entry, catch the afternoon sun as if gilded.
Like most contemporary artists, Mr. Anatsui doesn't want to assign rigid interpretation to his work. Ellen Rudolph, Akron's interim chief curator, asked the artist at the June program whether he was expressing an environmental concern through his media.
"Maybe tangentially. There are artists doing environmental art. ... There is concern for the Earth and its health, but I'm not trying to solve any problems with these works."
Asked about a spiritual aspect, he answered: "Art is a spiritual thing, generally. Some art provokes more spiritual feeling than others. [The room-sized, five-piece installation] 'Gli [Wall]' has that kind of feeling."
He associates spirituality with "the human touch, something I think is very psychic. A bottle cap comes from the bush. I don't know who has touched it. When I touch it, it means we have a bond. It took me some time to realize. When I, and my assistants, touch these, we're imbuing them with some spiritual -- yeah, some psychic -- power which eventually translates to the work itself."
A more deliberate concept, though subtle, is the reference to the slave trade the caps make. Europeans brought liquor to Africa to trade for slaves, who were brought to the Americas, where they produced the sugar cane that was turned into alcohol and continued the cycle to Europe and Africa.
While the works are quite beautiful, that also was not a goal. Mr. Anatsui said he was trying to be effective and their attractiveness is a way to draw attention. Lacking such pull, viewers "don't get close enough to listen. The idea wasn't to make something beautiful."
Mr. Anatsui is a colorist and the works are painterly, with areas of harmony or contrast, compositions of rhythmic regularity at times interrupted by a discordant line or a less ordered concentration of elements. "Black Block" and "Red Block" are monochromatic and appear almost somber.
Complementing the construction of the work is the way it is displayed, its mass and volume heightened by folds and draping. The pieces are not neatly stretched and pinned to the wall; the appearance is more of having taken up temporary residence, akin to a swarm of bees alighting.
The eight panels of "Drifting Continents" move across the corner of a room onto a second wall, each unit lowering gradually, before the last element slides onto the floor. "Gravity and Grace," the exhibition's titular work, ascends slightly across its 441-inch width.
Mr. Anatsui read French philosopher Simone Weil's 1947 book of that title and was inspired to explore concepts of "the material and the spiritual, of heaven and earth, of the physical and the ethereal," label text explains.
The artist suggested that, when installed, the "grace part should float upwards in some way. Gravity is denser," Ms. Rudolph said. That was one of few directions given by the artist, who encouraged the museum to be creative when hanging the show.
The installation was particularly challenging because of that freedom and the size of the works. The great care and inventiveness given by Ms. Rudolph and the museum preparatory staff contributes significantly to the exhibition's success.
"It took a leap on the part of the staff to fully internalize the fact that it was up to us to give form to your work," Ms. Rudolph told the artist at the June program. "Most artists don't want to give up that control. So it was very daunting, but also very exciting."
Mr. Anatsui did change the positioning of one of a haunting group of "Waste Paper Bags" -- discarded, distressed and painted aluminum printing plates that range in height from 38 to 116 inches. "Two days before the opening, he crumpled, shaped and turned one of them upside down," Ms. Rudolph said.
But overall, he told her, he was very pleased with the installation.
Mr. Anatsui was raised by a Presbyterian minister uncle and earned art and art education degrees from the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, where the curriculum emphasized Western art and history. He supplemented that with exploration of regional music and craft, most importantly the way African artisans used symbols to give form to abstract concepts.
"That taught me there are two ways of looking at the world. You can look at the world through your eyes, and you can look at the world through your mind."
In 1975, he accepted a teaching position at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in southeastern Nigeria. He described it as a "typical university town" with a population of approximately 200,000 and 40,000 students, set within "flat land interrupted by sudden isolated hillocks, which provides an interesting type of landscape." He continues to live in Nsukka, though he has resigned his professorial position to work full time in his studio.
Mr. Anatsui employs up to 30 assistants for the "very laborious and tedious work" of assembling the caps into sheets. His helpers come from the community and are generally young men awaiting acceptance to the university. He first employed art students, but as demand for his work increased, he needed full-time workers who didn't break for study and holidays. Several past employees have graduated and found other work and "that gives me satisfaction as well," he said.
When enough sheets are produced, the artist composes the piece on the floor. He begins with a "very, very nebulous idea" and changes the blocks of caps around "until it feels right." And they are finished -- until they receive new interpretation in an exhibition or collection.
"Life is not something that is cut and dried and boxed," Mr. Anatsui said. "It's something that can change all the time. I want my work to have that kind of quality of character."
• Where: Akron Museum of Art, One South High St., Akron, Ohio.
• When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday and until 9 p.m. Thursday. through Oct. 7
• Tickets: $7; students and seniors, $5; ages 17 and under and members, free; third Thursday of the month, free admission.
• Events: 6:30 p.m. Sept. 20 -- Susan Vogel, art historian and videographer, will discuss and sign copies of her new book, "El Anatsui: Art and Life."
• Video: An interview with the artist is on the museum website, and there are plans to post the June dialogue with Mr. Anatsui.
• Parking: Across the street.
• Restaurants: The museum cafe sells drinks and snacks 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. daily; restaurants are within walking distance.
• Information: 1-330-376-9185 or www. AkronArtMuseum.org.
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: email@example.com or 412-263-1925.