War with No End

John Haber
in New York City

But a Storm Is Blowing in Paradise

Toyin Ojih Odutola

Art from the Middle East, North Africa, and Nigeria

What is there to do when the war has no end? The question, once spoken, hangs in the air long after a video at the Guggenheim plays to its end. It hangs over the entirety of "But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise," art from the Middle East and North Africa. Meanwhile, deeper into Africa, Toyin Ojih Odutola in Chelsea finds pleasure and pain in black and white.

A different kind of isolation

The seventeen artists at the Guggenheim all have their own answers. One can seek out the war's origins, in geopolitics or internal divisions. One can look for echoes in the earth's trembling or for evidence in a museum. Nadia Kaabi-Linke's Flying Carpet (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2016)One can look past it to the future, with grandiose civic planning and architecture. One can make art from its rubble or its monuments. One can try to coast far above it, with the view from the Web or the air.

They do not, though, suggest a diversity of art in the region. They do not have a distinct style, because they have nothing in the way of painting and little in the way of drawing or sculpture. Rather, they have a consistent set of strategies, based on installations, appropriation, and new media. Most are in their late thirties. A small show pays off—in concentrated attention, decent work, and a strongly felt sensibility. It can, though, grow monotonous, even with just eighteen works, and everything from the actual wars and their cost to Israel goes unmentioned.

The show is the latest in the UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, following art from Latin America two years before. (The corporate name translates into funding for purchase from among the work on display.) The curator, Sara Raza, makes good use of the tower galleries, tailoring work to entire walls or enclaves, although limited space means that two artists rotate in only in July, a little less than halfway through. The series boosts the museum's commitment to contemporary art as well as global art. And the commitment appears real. A year after the installment from Latin America, the same space had an unforgettable show of Doris Salcedo, from Colombia.

Does it make sense to join North Africa and the Middle East, rather than African art? It is certainly timely—after the Arab spring, American military action from Afghanistan to Libya, and a refugee crisis from all directions. The artists themselves attest to displacement. Two-thirds now work in Europe or the United States, and a third were born there. They may recall more open borders or a different kind of isolation from a war zone, like that of Algerians in a Paris suburb. They raise a question, too, of how much open borders and a multicultural Europe can survive.

Mariam Ghani, who created that video, was born and lives in New York, of a Lebanese mother and Afghan father. She also typifies the show's strategies. She confronts past and present, Europe and the Mideast, colonialism and Islamic art. One channel shows a museum in central Germany built in 1779 that became a model experiment for Nazi Neoclassicism. The other shows a palace in Kabul, built in 1929 and fallen into decay. Together, they supply A Brief History of Collapses.

Who has collapsed, and who is responsible? A breathless narration rushes past, without emphases or affect, daring anyone to make the connections. It seems culled from far too many academic lectures and far too few particulars. The work has trouble looking for answers beyond museum interiors, and so does the entire show. Yet it lingers over places far away, claustrophobic but filled with light. Its questions do indeed hang in the air.

A confluence of cultures

Ori Gersht appeared before at the Guggenheim, in "Haunted," a show of photography, video, and performance. Ala Younis appeared in a 2014 show of Arab art and, before that, in a New Museum triennial. The rest will be new to most New Yorkers, at least until the same ideas appear again on the next floor. Younis, for example, covers two walls with photos, prints, and plans for a greater Baghdad, by Frank Lloyd Wright, with an architectural model between them resembling a parking garage. Kader Attia has much the same combination, only for an Algerian city. And both models have something to do with Le Corbusier.

Both are light enough on their feet. Younis accompanies his model with the toppled statue of Saddam Hussein and men who could be fleeing or dancing. Attia constructs his model from couscous. Yet you may still feel that things have begun all over again. Rokni Haerizadeh quotes Walter Benjamin, the Marxist critic, on Paul Klee. Gersht's video follows Benjamin in exile.

City planning returns often, from the Internet and from the air. Haerizadeh paints over YouTube, improving it no end, while Ahmed Mater flies over Saudi Arabia in an official helicopter that monitors the pilgrimage to Mecca. From above, the mosque becomes a science fiction fantasy. Ali Cherri borrows aerial maps of Beirut as a fault zone. Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, too, both hide and hint at Lebanon's civil wars, embedding film in the closed covers of a book. The urban grid shifts to New York for sketches by Susan Hefuna, inspired as well by Islamic screens, although one might never know it.

Back in the art world, Iman Issa casts a monument in copper for his Heritage Studies, looking suspiciously like a nose cone, while Hassan Khan casts a bank banister in polished bronze. It hangs from the ceilings near a banister that one can touch, the museum's own. The transformation of heritage into Post-Minimalism continues with Abbas Akhavan, who casts plants from the heart of civilizations, by the Tigris and Euphrates. They look like rubble, but also like something that Eva Hesse might have made. The influence of Fluxus appears in Mohammed Kazem's sheet of white, scratched to produce a tight pattern of small bumps. Hanging on the wall and rolling out onto the floor, it could be a monochrome painting, a player piano roll, or an ancient scroll.

Like Kazem, the show's best work makes the confluence of cultures explicit, while leaving open whether to see the diaspora as productive or a loss. Nadia Kaabi-Linke has by far the largest and most geometric sculpture. Flying Carpet draws on The Arabian Nights and memories of street vendors selling rungs, but as shifting volumes of steel, rubber verticals, and their shadows. And Ergin Cavusoglu spins out dust trails into colored lines, converting the museum floor into both personal histories and earthworks. One might hesitate to walk beneath the first or on the second. They carry that much lightness and weight.

It will take others to cross into Africa and the Middle East, as sites of conflict and lived experience. Others are doing so in photography, like Barry Frydlender and Shimon Attie, or conceptual art, like Walid Raad—but not here. For all the show's heavy talk of politics, philosophy, and logic, it comes most alive apart from any of them. Cavusoglu also has a video of people reciting Italo Calvino and Anton Chekov, as Crystal and Flame. They could be telling stories over a common meal, as part of what holds families and peoples together. For once, war seems far away.

Scarred by whiteness

Toyin Ojih Odutola has an almost unrelenting bluntness. Many of his portraits isolate a black face against a white background, the black scarred by short, parallel strokes of white. Grouped on a wall, they risk leveling the differences among sitters. Taken alone, the technique can become a mask. In a rare group portrait, men come with familiar masks of their own, from their frontal poses to their street clothes. This, they seem to say is blackness in America, and it can never escape being effaced and ignored by something or someone white.

Odutola's latest may not exactly concede ground, but it adds an expressive variety. Its virtuosity brings pleasures of its own as well. In the past, one could dismiss the technique as a formula. One could call it neither loving nor nasty enough to bite. While he still sees things almost strictly in black in white, both take on new roles, especially the white. They also have some unforeseen reversals.

The artist works mostly in pen and charcoal, but also with figure and ground. It is hard even to know when a mark belongs to the medium or to paper or canvas showing through. Maybe he really is conceding ground after all. Faces in black with traces of white alternate with faces in white with traces of black. Sometimes Odutola pairs figures, in two works identical except for the exchange of black and white. But then the very idea of white charcoal reverses expectations.

Sometimes, too, white takes over entirely. In one series, a face emerges only slowly in white on white, like a black cross for Ad Reinhardt in reverse. One might be examining an x-ray, like forensic evidence from a crime scene. In another series, white extends to the entirety of a reclining body drowning in a sea of white. Elsewhere lines pare back from coarse parallels to the loose economy of portrait drawing. Some still come too easily by their bluntness, but they are more and more alone.

Born in Nigeria, Odutola draws on the experience of blackness in more than urban America. He must know the experience of black on black violence several times over, where the scars are real. The gallery's other space has another artist from the same country, Odili Donald Odita, and there, too, virtuosity has its pleasures without insisting on subtlety. Odita's abstractions have grown to mural scale, in wall paintings. Diagonals just off the vertical or horizontal add up to thin diamonds of color that take on motion, much as for Gary Petersen. Every so often a color continues across a diagonal, slightly displaced in the process as if in time.

Odutola shares the portraiture of black pride with more fashionable and shallow artists like Mickalene Thomas and Kehinde Wiley. Like them or a Congolese artist collective, he lingers on cultural and historical detail, not to mention suffering. Still, those white nudes are collapsing, with feeling, and variety is getting in the way of glibness. Maybe it is just the context of a full show, but even the scarred black faces against white look more like individuals. In a wall of works on paper, they depart freely from a fixed angle or point of view. They almost at times seem human.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise" ran at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through October 5, 2016, Toyin Ojih Odutola and Odili Donald Odita at Jack Shainman through January 30.

 

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