Odili Donald Odita
Riva Gallery
529 West 20th Street, Chelsea
Through Nov. 28, 2001

Florence Lynch Gallery
147 West 29th Street, Chelsea
Through Dec. 1, 2001

Deborah Frizzell
New York Arts Magazine

In his essays, "Six Memos for the Next Millennium,' Italo Calvino distilled five characteristics whose qualities he considered the most difficult for the creative imagination to achieve: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity. These attributes are now hallmarks of the world of cyberspace, the everyday virtual worlds of the cool blue screen. The weight of the world, its opacfty, is transformed into a weightless, abstract visual lightness that has acquired emblematic value. By recognizing and playing upon the paradoxical nature of virtual reality's transmutations, Odili Donald Odita embeds in the materiality of painting a sense of the oscillating, interwoven spaces and narratives moving at light-fling speed through cyberspace.

Odita, born in Nigeria and raised in Ohio, integrates many different idioms, drawing from art history, digital technology, traditional African art, contemporary discourse, and personal narrative. His recent concurrent exhibitions at Florence Lynch Gallery, featuring intimately scaled paintings and drawings, and at Riva Gallery, featuring large scale paintings and mixed media installations, evince a nuanced and sensuous abstract pictorial language and an ability to move fluidly between perceptual and conceptual concerns, discursive spaces and visceral responses.

The aesthetic impact of Odita's outsized (80 x 104 inches) acrylic paintings at Riva Gallery was one of being surrounded by sheer beauty and luminous effervescence. Meticulously structured and multi-tiered horizontal zigzagging planes pulsate in syncopated rhythms across the canvas, edging toward extending outward into space. Odita deploys sophisticated formal means to suggest a liminal dimension between states, a phase transition, precipitously sliding toward vibration. An incipient illusionism taps into elusive references that appear to float on a wei9htless planar translucency.

"Descent' (2001) merges cool, low key blue and green scissoring planes with sandwiched layers of warm, high key oranges, reds, and pinks. Sliced pyramidal forms are mirrored by shadowed inversions and overlaps, illusionistic in their optical play, animating a surface skin which cannot be contained by a gestalt experience. While the destabilization of perception by Color Field painting and Op art are referenced by Odita, his intuitive abstraction is multivalent, infiltrated by suggestions of landscape terrain or atmosphere, flickering computer or T.V. screens, textile traditions or fragmented architectonic spaces. Informed by the circulation of Euro-American modernism and its attendant appropriation of African cultural influences, paintings such as "Horizon' (2001) and 'Over Here, Over There' (2001) are redolent not with a fashionable irony but with a vital sense of an emerging vernacular which engages memory, loss, hope and the possibility of creating new idioms from a genuine cultural pluralism.

Odita's expansive paintings affect the nature of the viewer's bodily experience of space and form via subtly crafted color modulations and dynamics of tone, evoking a kind of synesthetic experience akin to "seeing' music. Jazz and, in particular, the music of Miles Davis are never far from Odita's frame of references. He structures visual fugue-like compositions: layers of rhythmically repeated but slyly variant voices, a complex polyphony with a dissonant edge, containing contiguities and variations on a theme.
Interspersed with the paintings, Odita's three concise mixed media installations, "Family Tree,' 'Heaven Can Wait,' and 'Half Way,' engage discursive and conceptual issues raised by his transatiantic American and African experiences. The artist's father is an art historian, painter and professor, and thus, Odita grew up surrounded by art books and art conversation, the ongoing processes of painting and his father's collection of African artifacts. His parents imparted their heritage of a living lgbo culture in its specificity, dovetailed with commonalities within a larger African cultural framework. The related installations grew from a period (1994-1997) when Odita had stopped painting to focus on conceptual mixed media work. More recently, these installations have become highly metaphoric: lyric condensations of experiences, clues and fragments, slices of the familiar made strange. "Family Tree' employs an enlarged Warholian film-strip format to vertically juxtapose burnished black-and-red images of ceremonial masks from the artist's ethnic heritage paired with documentary style, dose-up photo-portraits of individuals. This doubling strategy developed during his recent travels in Nigeria, when Odita was struck by the uncanny similarity of facial features between certain ceremonial masks and passersby living in areas where the masks were made. The artist critically recontextualizes the standard art history "visual comparison" methodology (double slide carousel presentations) with modernist notions of African masks as anonymous, depersonalized and stylzed aesthetic objects. Odita inverts these conventions by offering a personalized "Family Tree' of masks which clearly portray individuals from the community. His inversion inheres an elegiac pitch to the photo-based project.

The directness and spontaneity of the smaller drawings on paper and paintings featured at Florence Lynch Gallery disclose emotions and felt experience of a personal and political nature brought dose to the surface. In his figurative and gestural charcoal and tempera works, such as "Boy' (2001), 'Soldier' (2001) or 'Burning' 2001, the artist's intellectualization and conceptual distance are kept at a minimum, deferring to contingent and immediately expressive means. The Nok Figures #1, #2, and #3 are a face-off to the genre of Western portraiture as it relates to African masks used as invigorating modernist tools by Picasso, Matisse, and the German Expressionists. These figurative works on paper have a spare sophistication of form and technique which carry an emotional weight and a sense of vulnerability or precariousness.

Odita's work in various media consistently display a precise presence and invoke the poetic or lyric mode. That is to say, he is concerned with the metaphysical dimensions of the concrete world. The transcendent as well as the virtual figure in his work, as does the power of beauty.

© Deborah Frizzell & NY Arts Magazine