Love is a many-splendored thing, but those splendors are notoriously hard to nail down. It’s an emotion that can be so intense it overwhelms all your senses and you’re sure the world outside must be vibrating with it. But what evidence is there, really, to a stranger, that love is in the air—subtle gestures, a throbbing pulse?
And yet love is everywhere, mostly in forms well clear of the sphere of romance. Its warmth can be inspired by a garbled text message, powdered sugar on fried dough or Monday night football. Artist Senga Nengudi embraces the whole complex mess and our inability to express it with her installation Lov U at the Warehouse Gallery, 350 W. Fayette St.
A major figure in the Black Arts Movement from the 1970s onward, Nengudi, 69, is best known for sculptures like R.S.V.P., in which everyday pairs of pantyhose are filled with sand, distorted, knotted and stretched to the extreme. The sculptures become stand-ins for the women who wore them, and are symbolic of physical and psychological resilience.
Nengudi works in many media including painting, poetry, photography and performance art. She drew on all those disciplines for her current installation and engaged all five senses.
Two small televisions, sitting on the floor of the main gallery, are looping older performances by Nengudi. Almost literally footnotes, they help place the current installation in the context of her larger body of work. The first shows an excerpt from Dance, in which the artist and a smoking man regard each other from across a room. They wait, shift posture, sneak smoldering looks and try to mask their attraction, never quite making contact. In a crowded dancehall filled with laughter, noise, rhythm and revelers, you wouldn’t even notice this couple, but all that has been subtracted and they are left in a space empty of everything but each other.
The other video, aptly named Hands, contains even less action. The artist’s hands are shown up close, as she would see them herself. Nancy Wilson’s sultry voice accompanies the sequence, delivering lines like, “If I was wise I’d run away.” The viewer is invited to linger on each detail, line and crease.
High on the wall between these two TVs is an oversized print of Nengudi’s right hand reaching out toward a horizon of green treetops and distant clouds. Formally, it’s no masterpiece, but it does convey an urgent, abstract desire. Bare bulbs are mounted on the wall, one on each side of the print. Rings of balled-up masking tape orbit each bulb, casting shadows that radiate outward.
A different symmetry continues along the other axis of the room. The two facing walls are near-mirror images. Each has a swirling vortex of ripped blue painter’s tape, a pink plastic structure (either a flimsy rocket ship or a rig to hold wigs) and a glass paperweight pinning down a floppy beige masking-tape heart.
The way the hearts are draped makes them look like they are flowing over smooth rocks in a river, from one void toward the other. If that were so, at the midpoint in the heart’s journey it would pass between two enormous columns covered completely in loops of, you guessed it, masking tape. The heart hits its high point above the columns: It’s vertical, much larger, splashed with color and seeded with sticks of incense.
More strips of masking tape trap hair extensions and hang from the top of the doorway to the vault. They caress you as you enter like so many strings of beads from the swinging 1970s. This smaller room is packed with photographs. Some are of the artist’s friends and family and others were solicited from the Syracuse community. Loving older couples share the wall with vamping sisters, pet owners, hip-hop wannabes and State Fair vendors—each image an answer to the question, “What do you love?”
The point seems to be that there are as many types of love and ways to express it as there are people in the world, or as curator Anja Chavez put it, “‘I love you.’ People say it in billions of ways in many languages.” Nengudi embraces this multiplicity, turning love’s squishy definition into a celebration. According to Chavez, it is hoped that visitors will be moved by all they see, hear, smell and touch. Dance if you want to. That’s what she wants you to do. Loosen up. Actually feel the love.Senga Nengudi’s Lov U will be on display at the Warehouse Gallery until Oct. 27. The gallery is free and open Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 6 p.m., and until 8 p.m. on Third Thursdays. Visit thewarehousegallery.syr.edu or call 443-6410 for more information.