CMNW Council

Process and destiny at the Cooley Gallery

"Las Vegas Ikebana" celebrates five decades of friendship between Maren Hassinger and Senga Nengudi. On view are individual works, collaborations, and ephemera that reveal the richness of their creative intertwining.

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gallery install view with white walls, television screens with headphones and various ephemera. On the upper right corner of the gallery wall is an led sign that reads 'artists talk shit'
Installation view of Las Vegas Ikebana: Maren Hassinger and Senga Nengudi, Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery, Reed College, Portland, Oregon. Photo by Mario Gallucci

Las Vegas Ikebana: Maren Hassinger and Senga Nengudi packs a mind-boggling amount of artwork into the single-room space of the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery at Reed College. Performance documentation, sculptures, archival notes, collages, portraits, and videos subsume all the gallery walls, anchoring different points in history from the 1970s to present day. This material tells the story of two cross-disciplinary artists, Maren Hassinger and Senga Nengudi, illuminating the nooks and crannies of their solo and shared practices over the course of five decades. 

“This is our process. This is our calling.” said Nengudi during their artist talk at Reed College this February 17. 

“And our destiny,” Hassinger added. 

Hassinger and Nengudi met in Los Angeles in 1977 and forged an imaginative relationship that persisted through periods of close proximity and distance, spurring each others’ drive and daring to create sculpture, mixed media, performance, and much more. The title of their exhibition, Las Vegas Ikebana, comes from a concept they developed together in the late ’80s—“Las Vegas” refers to the outlandish city, and the “Ikebana” (“way of flowers”) refers to the delicate Japanese art of flower arrangement. Hassinger and Nengudi channel both: levity and gravity; playfulness and intentionality. 

pantyhose stretched between gallery walls
Senga Nengudi, R.S.V.P. X, 1976/refabricated 2014. Exhibition copy. Nylon, sand, and rose petals. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Photo by Mario Gallucci

In a corner of the gallery hangs one of Nengudi’s older sculptures, R.S.V.P. X (1976/refabricated 2014). This work was formed with brown pantyhose pulled in various directions and weighted with sand and rose petals. It conjures so many connotations and referents: Black womanhood, the feminine fulcrum of discomfort and resilience, spatial attention stretched thin and reaching multi-directionally, feelings of containment and precarity—and, of course, absurdity. 

installation view, central focus is a starburst of wires on a white wall
Installation view of Las Vegas Ikebana: Maren Hassinger and Senga Nengudi, Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery, Reed College, Portland, Oregon. Pictured in foreground: Maren Hassinger, Splintered Starburst (On Dangerous Ground), 1981/2023, wire rope. Courtesy the artist and Susan Inglett Gallery, NYC. Photo by Mario Gallucci

Hassinger’s work takes a different approach to similar themes. At the gallery entrance, I found one of her sculptures hanging on a wall, Splintered Starburst (On Dangerous Ground) (1981/2023), where wire rope weaves through an inconspicuous center of metal grating. The wire unwinds and spokes in all directions, like an entity of restraint untethering itself from its function, fiber by fiber. And in the nearby black and white photo Tree Duet, II, 5617 Vicente Blvd. Los Angeles (1977), Hassinger gestures among twisting tree branches propped up around her in a studio. 

While this early work by Nengudi is stretchy and ballasted, Hassinger’s is twirled and spiraled—both reach out toward the unknown. 

Sponsor

Seattle Opera Barber of Seville

black-and-white triptych of photographs of dancers in white outfits next to a second larger photo of a figure posing with an arm outstretched in front of a tree limb
Left to right: Maren Hassinger, Ten Minutes, 1977. Performed at Studio Z, Los Angeles, April 10, 1977 by Senga Nengudi and members of Hassinger’s Lester Horton dance class taught by Lelia Goldoni and Yvonne de Lavallade. Maren Hassinger, Tree Duet II, 5617 San Vicente Blvd, Los Angeles, c. 1977. Photo: Adam Avila. Courtesy the artist and Susan Inglett Gallery, NYC. Installation photo by Mario Gallucci

Certainly, their collaboration has been full of unknowns, “what if we’s,” and experiments that seemed to come less out of retaliation toward the dominant trends of the art world and more out of the necessity to make work, especially in the face of life’s overwhelming challenges—Hassinger’s divorce; Nengudi’s responsibility to care for her children and ailing mother at once. 

The two kept up an exchange of phone calls and writings and harbored notebooks by their bedsides so that they could write down ideas to share with one another. In a letter on display from Nengudi to Hassinger (1985), I read, “Thank you, thank you for that check. It went straight to the bank.” In a letter from Hassinger to Nengudi (1991), I read, “Dear Senga, Thank you for the blessed rose petal. Just what I needed.” Their commitment to the repetition of correspondence reads like the striking of flint over and over in order to spark a fire, to ignite their next project.

Hassinger and Nengudi also cultivated their early interest in dance and performance by training in the lineages of dancers Lester Horton and Rudy Perez. This seeded their eventual performance practice together: In the video of the performance Alive (1980), Hassinger and Nengudi—both wearing long pointy finger extensions—locked hands with their collaborator Franklin Parker. Later on in the performance, they kissed their own arms and hands. 

Accompanying this video, I noticed the phrase “kissing yourself” amongst a display of their “Dancer notes,” scraps of ideas spitballed on paper from the same year. Dancing and aliveness, aliveness and friendship—all came in concert here.  

bulbous form made out of pantyhose stressed on a board slanting diagonally away from the viewer
Detail of Senga Nengudi, See-See Riders, 2024. Custom seesaw constructed from wood, metal, sand, and nylon. Commissioned by the Cooley Gallery, Reed College. Photo by Mario Gallucci

I visited the Cooley gallery on February 17, the same day as their artist talk, for See-See Riders, a performance choreographed by Nengudi that took its title from a blues song of a similar name. It was performed by longstanding collaborators keyon gaskin and sidony o’neal as well as a surprise guest—who, I learned, jumped in the performance at the eleventh hour—Dr. Leslie King-Hammond. The performance unfolded on a wooden seesaw at the center of the exhibition, with Dr. King-Hammond in the middle, gaskin on one end and o’neal on the other. Dr. King-Hammond offered touches to gaskin and o’neal by the tips of her gentle fingers as the two slowly tipped the seesaw up and down in a gesture of intergenerational reciprocity. Hassinger and Nengudi watched on from the side. 

At the end of the performance, Nengudi spoke about how collaboration is a generative balancing act, always underway, always in process. Hassinger and Nengudi, I suspected, must want us to feel this sensation of tensegrity in our bodies—for this appears to have held them in collaboration, kept them going, throughout the greater portion of their lives. 

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Sponsor

Portland Opera Puccini

Las Vegas Ikebana: Maren Hassinger and Senga Nengudi continues at the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery at Reed College (3203 Southeast Woodstock Boulevard, Portland, Oregon) through May 19. The gallery is open Thursday through Sunday, noon to 5:00 pm and is always free. The exhibition was curated by Allie Tepper and organized for the Cooley by Allie Tepper with director Stephanie Snyder.

On Saturday, March 23 at 12pm, there will be a final performance of See-See Riders (2024), a new performance choreographed by Senga Nengudi and danced by sidony o’neal and keyon gaskin, presented in the exhibition. Seating is limited. To attend please email cooleyperformance@gmail.com.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Hannah Krafcik (they/them) is a Portland-based interdisciplinary neuroqueer artist and writer whose work emerges from ongoing reflections on social patterning and censorship, (over)stimulation, perseveration, and intuition. Their practices span dance, writing, new media, and sound design. Hannah continues to be influenced by their collaboration with artistic partner Emily Jones.
Photo credit: Jo Silver
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