Tag Archives: Jordan Casteel

Toyin Ojih Odutola: Realist Portraits in a Faux-Collection

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.

Icons and Scripture at The Studio Museum

At the Studio Museum in Harlem:

Regarding the Figure; through August 6.

Rico Gaston: Icons, 2007-2017; through August 27.

Jamal Shabazz; through August 27.

Excerpts; through July 2.

Graphic Design from the Studio Museum Archive; through July 2.  

Spring at SMH kicked off, as it has in recent years, with “open studios,” at its in-house spaces, recently inhabited by this year’s three winners of its astute, important artist residency program that has launched many a serious art career.  The event was a breath of fresh (as opposed to gallery) air for visitors and seemingly energizing for the artists, whose light-filled niches were scattered mainly with studies and works in progress.  Andy Robert had already covered his walls with color grid-charts – quickly reminiscent of Albers, Chuck Close, Stanley Whitney –  and had several mushy and atmospheric, deep bluish canvases leaning around.  I asked him about Ab Ex; he implied that, in the end, figuration will emerge.  Julia Phillips had some small, highly crafted metal and ceramic objects, several  strung up on rack-like fixtures—absurd and slightly scary.  Autumn Knight confronted me as I entered the circle of visitors seated in her room, which was punctuated by a string of colored light bulbs strewn across the floor.  Although admittedly jaded by decades of lukewarm performance art and make-shift “happenings,” I still succumbed to her passive-aggressive entré and the relational group around her.  Museum director Thelma Golden was on hand, cheering on her young charges and us, despite her copious globe-encompassing activities as a leading art curator, educator and advocate.  A brilliant program developed nearly at the founding of this indispensable institution, which culminates in an exhibition of a body of work by each in the museum proper.

Main gallery (street-level):  In the featured show of figurative works from the collection Barkley L. Hendricks’s divine  painting, Lawdy Mama (1969) presides like a Byzantine icon—both mortal portrait and female deity; also, at the moment, a moving tribute to his recent passing. Another show-stopper is Jordan Casteel’s putty-painted, pudgy, in-your-face stroller-age twins (2017), which will melt anyone without a heart of stone right into the pushed-up picture plane. Lynette Yiadom Boakye,* known for imaginary painted portraiture, is here (as well as currently at MoMA, in “Unfinished  Conversations”); make sure to look closely at Eldzior Cortor’s sensitively painted, slightly melancholic women against a Surrealist-tinged backdrop (1949).  Some photo stand-outs: Lorraine O’Grady’s** dual photo portrait profile of a young woman and an Egyptian bust (conceived in a series of c. 1980); a back and front self-portrait head-shot diptych by Lyle Ashton Harris* (1990s); a sitter on a bed seen in a mirror Zanele Muholi (2015). That’s for starters.  As is often the case with SMH’s collection shows, the cross-chronological installation proposes and reveals engaging links (and at times even lineages) that distinguish an amorphous African diaspora art, within historical American art and the larger art world.

Upstairs: Rico Gaston’s throw-back ‘70s poster-album cover, graphic commemorations are, further, subtly crafted, color-coded Op art, with Precisionist linear rays emanating from sparse portrait montages, in a dizzying serial presentation.

More twins and twinning–a winning trope a the selection of street photography by Jamal Shabazz.

Downstairs:  The “Excerpts” show gets into a greyish area of postwar aesthetics known colloquially as “word art” – and its vicissitudes, in terms of form/s, content, and presentation.  Among the artists included: Charles Gaines, master of this (and other) reputedly esoteric conceptual art sub-genre; Glenn Ligon, near-exclusively a “language” artist who first brought layered expressions of personal and shared identity and history inhered in literature into the mix in the early 1990s; and Kara Walker, with a shocking, brave, and powerful piece (her “sign” doesn’t translate into mere text – you’ll see).  A coolly printed, breezy but compelling narrative piece by outré hipster Juliana Huxtable moves far into the new millennium; along with an alternative, low-tech, large-scale scrawl by Xavier Simmons (better known as a photographer).

Bonus: A display of graphic materials related to the museum and its exhibitions from its founding (1968) to the present; which finds an interesting counterpart in the current show, “A Bit of Matter: the MoMA PS1 Archives, 1976-2000” (MoMA/PS 1, through September 10).

*Also in the current “Whitney Biennial” (WMAA, through June 11).

**Also in the current exhibition, “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-1985”;  (Brooklyn Museum, through September 17); several others also in both shows.