Art Review – Wangechi Mutu @ Museum of Contemporary Art, 2013

It would be easy to breeze through this collection, which takes in collages, installations, short films and sculpture and simply be stunned into submission by her Wangechi Mutu’s maximalist aesthetic and singular style. Look closer though and there’s a strong vein of political commentary in Mutu’s work and a sense of lingering disquiet beneath the shiny veneers.

Born in Kenya, and based in the thriving contemporary art scene of Brooklyn, Mutu has compiled a completely distinctive body of work which focuses on the themes of exoticism, representations of the female body and the bloody legacy of colonialism and slavery in Africa.

The stunning large-scale Perhaps The Moon Will Save Us is a good representation of her modus operandi, being a fantastical creation which closer inspection reveals is made of mundane materials. What initially looks like scattered stars are mere holes smashed in the wall, while a sagging moon hangs over mountains made from packing tape and a makeshift fantasia of fake fur, thrift shop jewellery and ripped felt blankets.

One of Mutu’s many works to draw on African influences is Black Thrones where handsomely carved chairs sit atop empty thrones lavishly decorated with feathers, hair and horns. It’s a piece grounded both in realism and fantasy. The striking visuals have a certain fairy tale quality, but also act as a reference to the hush harbours, where African slaves would gather out of sight of their imperial overseers to congregate, practice religion and sing. The piece also touches the idea of loss in its invocation of absent royalty, a theme which runs through much of Mutu’s work.

Enclosed in a shipping container where light pierces holes in the wall, Exhuming Gluttony: Another Requiem is another visually striking, but somewhat queasy, installation where a collection of animal pelts hangs on the wall like a hunting trophy, looking out over a banquet table and a series of suspended red wine bottles which drip slowly, like blood from a wound. There is a sense the scene has been abandoned, while the tufts of hair on the floor add a gruesome touch.

Mutu is perhaps best known for her mixed media collages, and this side of her work is well represented with a number of works showcased. Feathers, plastic jewellery and explosions of glitter jostle for position with pictures of snakes, and images cut from motorbike magazines. Another highlight is Suspended Playtime, which features shiny black garbage bags rolled up into hanging baubles, in a work both sinister and playful.

The hour-long looped film Amazing Grace, which features the famous spiritual sung in Mutu’s nativeKikuyu, has a bewitching, dreamlike quality, though many of the other short films feel anonymous among such distinctive work. Overall, though, it’s a vital exhibition, from an artist literally capable of fashioning treasures out of trash and creating sobering political rhetoric out of the most abstract of mixed media collages.

Originally appeared in: Concrete Playground

Film Review – The Way Way Back (2013)

Some movies have a moment where they just click and you instinctively know the filmmakers know what they’re doing. In The Way, Way Back that moment comes when the painfully awkward Duncan (Liam James) is being driven to the beach house where he will spend the summer and he locks eyes with Owen (Sam Rockwell). The low-key but undeniable chemistry in that scene is a hallmark of a film which gets all the small details right.

Having been told he’s a “three out of ten” by Trent (Steve Carell), a passive-aggressive jerk who is dating his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), Duncan plans to keep a low profile during his holiday. But any chance of a quiet summer is soon scuppered by nosy neighbour Betty (Allison Janney), who plots to have Duncan become friends with her long-suffering son Peter (River Alexander), who she torments because of his lazy eye. It’s Betty’s daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) who can sympathise with Duncan though, and they form a faltering friendship as the adults leave them to their own devices.

As Susanna observes, the beachside community is “like spring break for adults” and while Trent and Pam make merry with Trent’s friends, the introverted Duncan goes exploring on a a bike and ends up seeking refuge at Water Wizz, the slightly rundown but much-loved local water park managed by perpetual adolescent Owen. Seeing something in the earnest teen that nobody else sees, Owen decides to give Duncan a job as a dogsbody at the park, bringing him into a group of misfits that includes Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), who is growing irked at Owen’s irresponsible ways and Lewis (Jim Rash), a sad sack who continually threatens to quit the park to pursue his dreams of being a storm chaser but never quite manages to leave.

The Way Way Back‘s story of a shy teen finding his place in the world over the course of a long, hot summer is by now a well-worn coming-of-age narrative, but this always feels more comfortable than cliched. The seaside small town with its endless beach parties and beer-soaked barbecues is lovingly evoked. The performances from an ensemble cast are uniformly topnotch, though it is Sam Rockwell who steals every scene as the sweet, funny and unexpectedly wise Owen.

Writer-directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon previously collaborated on the Oscar-winning The Descendants and have again struck gold, fashioning a wryly funny and nicely understated script which leaves the actors plenty to do. A big-hearted, bittersweet look at the pleasures and pains of growing up, and the compromises of adulthood, this is perfectly realised and way, way charming.

Originally appeared in: Concrete Playground

Film Review – Step Up To The Plate (2012)

As the sun sets on his acclaimed career as a chef, Michel Bras reflects on how important the role has been to him. Much more than just a job, it has been an all-consuming passion, a never-ending quest for culinary perfection. This gentle French documentary charts his slow withdrawal from his fabled restaurant set in a beautiful rural location and the lessons he passes on to his capable son Sebastian.

Favouring long, lingering shots capturing the meticulous preparation of their dishes, this is a reflective, slow-burning affair, focusing its attention on the pair’s almost painterly compositions, with tiny splashes of flavour, edible flowers and miniature cuts of herbs and vegetables all part of their palette. Their food draws on countless hours of perfectionist obsession to detail, but also the warmth of childhood memories and a deep love for preparing food with care and artistry.

Gorgeously shot, Step Up To The Plate achieves a similarly calm, almost meditative mood that this year’s other great foodie portrait Jiro Dreams of Sushi pulled off. On one level, this works as an up close and personal look at life in the rarefied surrounds of an elite French fine diner, but there is something more universal and poignant at play here. It’s the story of a man finding his niche and devoting himself to something completely and, ultimately, about the bittersweet experience of having to let it all go.

Originally appeared in: Broadsheet