Color Theory
Florence Lynch Gallery, NYC

Denis Carvalho
NKA, Journal of Contemporary Art
Fall/Winter 2000

Color Theory was the title of Odili Donald Odita's first New York solo exhibition held at Florence Lynch Gallery from October 16 to November14. New paintings, mixed media works and digitally manipulated photographs investigated the relationship between aesthetic traditions and cultural codes through the language of colors. Born in Enugu, Nigeria, and brought to America by his parents when he was only six months old, right after the Biafran war, Odita was raised in the Midwest assimilating important aspects of postmodern America, its myths and cultural languages, from art to the movies and advertising. With an educated African background, he came to live through the tension and psychological devastation of being reduced to being black in a country that defines identity according to race. The artist's strong sense of Nigerian identity was kept alive by family traditions, through stories told by his parents. in the collection of African art and artifacts in his home, and through a constant reminding of his roots. With an art historian for a father, Odita grew up reflecting upon two separate layers of aesthetic understanding, one academic, the other instinctive, one intrinsic in his birth language and roots, the other adopted and learned through everyday culture, forming the relationship between ideology of aesthetics and identity of space, which would become an important aspect of his work. Racial and ethnic codes were fundamental signifiers for the artist's perception of identity, intensified by a massive and growing distribution and generalization of these codes throughout media-cultures.

Odita's work took an important turn when he moved to New York in the early 1990s. The intensity of the city's fast-paced energy, its hypnotic architecture of the spectacle with lights and giant billboards, with mobile ads passing by on buses or through the trends of people, did not spare any one from its gaze. The city of many cultures crammed together was able to keep each culture distinct in language and tradition. The assimilation of this separateness shared into the same space. or the conceiving of different but integrated spaces, or even a hybridization of the image are perhaps the most important aspects of his work. Its process and concept combine a variety of tendencies, sometimes contradictory sometimes complementary, such as the warmth and openness of his African palette in contrast to the striking colors of American-suburbia represented in his paintings, or the distance and precision of more reductive structural patterns in contrast to his fascination with light and space whether physical or mental, whether through the rendering of repetitive diagonal lines, or in the multi-layers of meaning implied in the more conceptual aspect of his work.

"Black as a Negative Space," (1997-99), is a digitally manipulated photograph of a typical fashion magazine scene with three models posing for a shot. The picture also depicts a black silhouette, which stands out in relation to the soft background. The cutout or negative space of the photo, here scanned into a much larger size, reflects the influences of advertising and commerce. of cut and paste strategies in the substituting and selling of cultural information, and the obliteration of a "negative" identity, the identity of the other. The pattern, represented by repetitive codes such as the similarities in the appearance of the models, or other strategies of control is one of the many hegemonic schemes utilized by advertising to promote a simplification in our comprehension of identity. Most recently, the advertising industries have produced a more heterogeneous set of codes, mixing different races and ethnicities in a trendy and appealing look. Although New York's giant billboards promote a growing cross-cultural diversity, is this really a sign of an empirical support for multi-culturalism in the States, or is it part of a greater campaign, the one that spreads Western codes throughout the world? The negative or altered space of Odita's piece is the one whose identity is not represented here, the outer edge of a group, the periphery. A similar idea although focusing more on the confrontation with the viewer is the work entitled "The White Issue," (1997-99). Made in a similar fashion of the former, "The White Issue" depicts the front cover of Vogue, with a model in front of a landscape which colors could be reminiscent of the reddish-brown tones of African soil. Here, the artist continues to emphasize the metaphors schemed by consumerism inviting the viewer to reflect upon its aesthetic and illusive aspect, the opulence of visual satisfaction of other lands and other realities camouflaged by the luscious artifices of advertising. The frightening aspect implied by Odita's work is not only the inculcating of unimaginative aesthetic codes by the fashion industry, but the apathy of the viewer in their assimilation and consumption. To be allured by these codes is also to endure a voyeuristic act of admiration for the altered image represented by a pattern. This alienation and generalization of sexuality disguised through the language of fashion and hegemonically articulated through the advertising industry is not lesser a strategy of manipulation and control over individual sexuality than the pornographic industry's images. It also forms a clear link between sexual nihilism and porn's billion dollar economy.

Odita's paintings depicting diagonal layers of vivid colors such as "Present Tense," "The Speed of Life," "Pan-Am," and "Open," all from 1999, deal with more than just structure and rhythm. They represent the aesthetic struggle between form and concept; or more specifically, the dynamics of the aesthetic process against the immediate influences of the psycho-social. These layers of colorful bliss are the bright lights of the spectacle translated into space. Odita's paintings contain contradictions in relation to more conceptual works, among them "The White Issue" and "Black as a Negative Space." The paintings have a feminine, almost lyrical quality evoked by the horizontal lines, and a distance from the concept, although this is clearly present in the limits of each color. The layers as conductors of color and light cross the canvas on a continuous flow, in a decentralized web of possibilities separated only by space. In these paintings, Odili Donald Odita permeates an opening experience of escape and laughter, a trance into colors and space.

© Denise Carvalho
Denise Carvalho is an Art Critic and Independent Curator based in New York.
This essay was originally published in NKA, Journal of Contemporary African Art, No. 11/12, Fall/Winter 2000.