Perfect Pitch

Lauri Firstenberg

The "bad dream of modernism" is what T.J. Clark in "Pollock's Abstraction," writes of art's inability to escape the metaphoric, the commodity.(1) This fate for painting is discussed in light of Cecil Beaton's 1951 Vogue photographs which employed Pollock's Autumn Rhythm as decorative backdrop for fashion spread, pointing to the modernist problematic of kitsch and the avant-garde. This translation, deflation, and entrance of art into the popular domain, and vice-versa, in turn is played upon by Warhol, Johns, Rauschenberg, et al. The legacy and irony of abstract painting's resistance to collapsing into decoration is evidenced in early Greenbergian difficulty with Pollock's all-over gestural style (webs likened to textile for example). This tension of the reception of abstraction as decoration is critical to the painterly production of Nigerian-American artist Odili Donald Odita.

Odita goes so far as to literalize this rhetoric by producing wallpaper/collage paintings, calling into questions notions of taste and decor, and using mass media inspired grids as his point of departure to extend the Warholian critique of authenticity and capital to contemporary discourse of identity in the visual field. Odita discusses the use of wallpaper in his enterprise in terms of signaling the historical negotiation and entrance of the quotidian, the "low" into the realm of modernist painting.  This operation is located in his practice from the decorative to detritus, from his early base materialist practice to his present sleek hard edge style. As such, he retroactively takes on major tropes of abstraction. For example, in painting directly on the wall of the gallery in Intermission, or in extending his lines to the edge of his canvases, pointing to the realm of "the real" in Contact, the artist deliberately engages with historical debates on the desublimation of painting and on questioning the parameters of the pictorial field.

His work evokes more than a fusion of cultural practices and experiences of African and Euro-American origins and influences. Odita's interest in American pop culture and artistic production, coalescent with West African visual tropes, critically engages with the compounded history of Africa's reciprocal relationship to Occidental modernism. Odita is able to enlist a post-colonial critique that does not rely on the textual or on the body, but does so on the levels of appropriation, taste, desire, and perception, vis-a-vis his serial and signature brand of non-figurative abstraction.

Criticism of Odita's practices stresses his work as the product of a syncretic language of both African and American visual and cultural influences and experiences, yet the work formally seems to concern itself equally with the negotiation of the status and life of painting to date. Perhaps his task is to negotiate the questions of subjectivity in non-figurative terms. Early experiments with base materials resulting in Dubuffet-inspired-heavily factured surfaces were abandoned for a present ambitious and mature style based on post-Pollockian and Stellian opticality, which marks an inheritance of the legacy of color field painters in the destabilization of perception. Odita's optical play is performed by his signature severed, jagged planes of a dissonant palette. This unpenetrable animated surface, difficult to access as a totality, brings the observer back onto his/her own body.

His exhibition entitled "Color Theory" at Florence Lynch gallery in New York City directly references both the artist's relationship to Color Field painting and Op Art of the sixties and the politics of identity rehearsed in his own work. Stella's grids and Newman's zips serve as a point of departure for Odita's sonorous reanimation of reductive formalist painting. The zip of Newman is reworked and tilted from the sublimated vertical axis to a multi-tiered diagonal line moving towards the horizontal, creating a vibrating, oscillating, and pulsing surface, prohibiting the eye from fixing on an image. This pitch into the orientation of line produces a dynamic and jagged pattern as leitmotif, and collapses the dichotomous rhetoric of the high and the low (culture/nature), so resonant in the history of modem painting. His tiers of color are dehierarchized alluding to both formal and cultural imperatives.

The artist and his critics often reference the paintings' formal evocation of West African textiles in terms of pattern. This can be extended to the ways in which questions of identity surface in the work. In so doing, Odita elicits notions of West African textiles as mnemonic and communicative devices, and more generally, as popular emblems of Afrocentricity when appropriated in the West -- mass produced and made into universalizing signs referencing continental "Africa." This mode of identification is turned against itself in Odita's paintings. He extends this critique to the legacy of Africa's role in and relationship to Euro-American modernist abstraction, one that is completely interrelated yet historically sequestered in terms of circulation, reception, and categorization. In putting pressure on the classification of "Contemporary African Art," Odita revises the language of American hard edge abstraction and inserts his own narratives. He maintains, "In my paintings, I am dealing with memory, the presence and absence of experiences removed; nostalgia for a lost past, and the hope for something new and better."

Lauri Firstenberg is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University in the History of Art and Architecture Department. Firstenberg is Assistant Director/Curator of the MAK in Los Angeles and was formerly curator of Artists Space in New York.

This text was originally published in Flash art in 1998.

[1] Cf.: T.J. Clark "Pollock's Abstraction," in Serge Guilbaut (ed,) Reconstructing Modernism: Art in New York, Paris and Monreal 1945-1964, Cambridge, 1990, pp. 172-243.