Toyin Ojih Odutola: To Wander Determined
Whitney Museum of American Art, through Feb. 6, 2018
A large-scale pastel drawing titled, Surveying the Family Seat (2017) which plants a strong, contemporary male figure in a high-ground position peering out over an extensive landscape, introduces and encapsulates the solemn, hermetic privilege that pervades this series of recent pastel and charcoal portraits by Toyin Ojih Odutola (b. 1985). Here and throughout, verdant, serpentine terrain, rhythmically and colorfully delineated, melds into fabric folds and textile patterns, with emphasis on sartorial details and highlighted patches of exposed skin. The latter is carried through from the artist’s earlier work, first in ballpoint pen and then other media, in which dense black-on-black face and body images were inflected with peaks of “shine” (following Krista Thompson, Shine: The Visual Economy of Light . . ., 2015) that could read as both emanating and reflective, and also allude to scarification and masking. Here the effect is subdued and woven into overall naturalistic representation and implied narrative.
A decorative wall text imitating a book-plate frontispiece introduces a credible but fictional backstory grounding the disjointed visual chronicle of the multi-tiered, upper-crust Nigerian clan featured in the ensuing display. Linked through marriages and the business of maintaining wealth and status, the current heritors of a lineage portrait collection are a gay couple depicted in a work titled, Newlyweds on Holiday (2016)– artistic cousins to Kehinde Wiley’s intricately patterned pairs. Kerry James Marshall’s domestic insights and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s imaginary portrait sitters are also recalled, forthrightly.
Ojih Odutola is of a millennial generation of artists of African descent working within and outside of Africa who are stretching diasporaic and transnational vision in multi-directions for art content. Between them, new routes of artistic exchange—literal and metaphorical—have proliferated. Beyond Yiadom-Boakye, a number of woman among them have pursued figurative modes with specific emphasis on simulated fabric and/or fashion flair including Amy Sherald, Jordan Casteel, and Njideke Akunliyi Crosby, the latter a compatriot (Nigerian) émigré and perhaps closest painterly peer of Ojih Odutola. The works of these woman share a photo-like directness, incorporating typically shallow foregrounds that convey the desire to be boldy apprehended.
Among the distinctions of Ojih Odutola’s realism in this series is an enigmatic sensibility percolating beneath the surface linear fluidity of her pastel technique. Mostly, the depicted characters hold gazes that slyly confront or obviously deny viewers-voyeurs. Gender ambiguity is a recurring theme, mashed up with postmodern global styling and localizing trends. Ojih Odutola wrangles the controlled pose and inner ennui of her faux-subjects in the manner of John Singer Sargent—updated with the self-possessed polish and countour definition of Barkley Hendricks. Finally, tilting picture planes bring japonisme into Ojih Odutola’s orbit of inspirations, and white-on-white, veil-like layerings add a breezy elegance across several works–formal effects coaxed effectively out her earlier close-cropped monochromatic variations.