Senga Nengudi is having a moment. The 73-year-old veteran of the edgy 1960s New York performance-art scene has become better known for her weirdly imaginative sculpture, works that art critics often associate with deeply conceptual feminist and multicultural theories. Fair enough, but they also have some fundamentally visceral or even spooky qualities about them due to the way she uses her favorite medium: pantyhose. There must be something deeply satisfying about being able to torture and contort that bane of women everywhere into surrealistic concoctions that evoke the human form while venturing into exotic new realms where the artwork stretches like ligaments, or hangs pendulously or contorts acrobatically like the old comic book hero Plastic Man. Since they hint at both pop art and pathos, Nengudi's oddly animist sculptures resonate a wide array of associations.
In works like Swing Low (pictured), her abstract forms appear both taut and droopy in ways that suggest tribal African sculpture — or maybe just the secret mythic underworld of the pantyhose spirits. In R.S.V.P. Revery "Bow Leg," their sinewy convolutions suggest strange praying mantis-like forms that might have escaped from one of Max Ernst's more feverish canvases. The tone is more fraught, or even fetishistic, in Rubber Maid, where breastlike forms emerge from under a flap of black inner tube material that looks like it could be part of Batwoman's cape. More bodily connections appear in video works like Hands, where gestural hand movements facilitate an almost ritualistic sense of connection with the acrobatic fluidity of her pantyhose creatures. But her videos focused on the art and mechanics of textiles show how weaving machines were the prototype for the earliest computers (illustrated by their perforated paper tape pattern codes). Weaving also invokes the Latin root word for religion, "ligare," which means to link or bind, just as "witchcraft" derives from "wicker," the fibers that the ancients associated with the interwoven forces of nature. Obviously, there is more going on with pantyhose than most of us ever realized.