Shotgun Reviews

Senga Nengudi: The Material Body at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Deanne Gertner reviews Senga Nengudi: The Material Body at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver.

Senga Nengudi. R.S.V.P., 1976/2003; nylon mesh and bicycle tire; 20 x 26 x 12 in. Courtesy the artist and Thomas Erben Gallery, New York.

Senga Nengudi. R.S.V.P., 1976/2003; nylon mesh and bicycle tire; 20 x 26 x 12 in. Courtesy the artist and Thomas Erben Gallery, New York.


In her solo exhibition The Material Body at Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, Senga Nengudi uses worn pantyhose and other everyday materials to create sculptures that explore the elasticity of the body and mind. Stretching the capacity of the materials to their limit, Nengudi shows the tenuous and often amorphous nature of human life. This evocative show, organized by MCA Denver associate curator Nora Burnett Abrams, serves as the first museum survey of these sculptures, created from the 1970s to the present.

The exhibition features fourteen works that explore the malleable and ephemeral nature of the body and spirit. The nylon mesh sculptures stretch, twist, knot, pull, sag, perch, cling, and rest along the gallery walls and sometimes the ceiling, floor, and windows. They push the physical limits of the material, which is at once durable and delicate. The knotted bunches simultaneously call to mind kinky hair and intestines; the sand-filled feet echo breasts, scrota, and ballet shoes; the thin threads conjure up images of tentacles, wire, and tendons. The juxtaposition of found rusted metal or splintered weathered wood against the silky pantyhose creates a profound tension between hard and soft, strong and weak. Nengudi’s manipulation of the materials exposes dual and often contradictory qualities, which can perhaps be interpreted as a metaphor for larger social tensions. For example, R.S.V.P. (1976) crisscrosses a pair of pantyhose with sand-filled feet around two rusty nails. The nylon mesh seems stretched to its tearing point and yet it hangs safely on the wall, a veritable gravitational feat.

One can’t help but wonder why MCA Denver is the first museum to examine these sculptures in depth. Since her inclusion in the 54th Carnegie International a decade ago, Nengudi has participated in group exhibitions at institutions including the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and MOMA PS1, New York. However, The Material Body is her first museum solo exhibition. With nearly half of the works on view at MCA originally conceived almost forty years ago, it seems the museum world has not given the attention deserved by this sculptor’s probing look into life’s paradoxes.

Many of the sculptures’ titles include “R.S.V.P,” an acronym for répondez s’il vous plaît—French for “please respond.” With Nengudi’s humorous, intelligent, and graceful views of the human mind and body and its inherent contradictions, it’s almost impossible not to respond.

Senga Nengudi: The Material Body runs through July 13 at the MCA Denver.

Deanne Gertner holds an MFA in fiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She works for NINE dot ARTS, a Denver-based boutique art consulting firm, where she helps companies turn their environments into experiences through the power of original art.