2.21.18 — Your Presence Is Required

Toyin Ojih Odutola left Nigeria for the United States at age five, but it will not let go. As one title puts it, she is not just between continents, but Between the Margins.

At the Whitney through February 25, Odutola pictures a young adulthood that she could never have had, in two interlinked families that she might feel privileged to call her own. They survey the family seat and unclaimed estates, with a bottle from the family vineyard on the floor. They maintain an office as representatives of the state. They may also feel trapped by the very demands that they have placed on others and themselves. Toyin Ojih Odutola's Between the Margins (courtesy of the artist/Jack Shainman, 2017)They go through with barely a smile through the milestones of a marriage, a pregnancy, and the first night at boarding school—when the next generation can or must stand on their own. When an invitation that “requires your presence” lies unanswered on a massive desk, it sounds like an injunction on both the recipient and the art.

Odutola cannot let go of the past, but not in the way of many today. A new academicism has gained in popularity among African American artists, to assert pride in themselves, their ancestry, and life on the street. It rejects “post-black identity,” but also turns aside from racism, police killings, and southern history. With Mickalene Thomas and Barkley L. Hendricks, it adopts an overlay of portraiture and glitter. It helps explain why Barack and Michelle Obama have chosen Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald for their official portraits. It may put in question the very status of modernity—and so, far more knowingly, may Odutola’s Nigeria.

She, too, has a command of both realism, informed by European and American art, and “Pattern and Decoration.” She works in charcoal, pastel, and pencil on the scale of painting. They allow the precise outlines of a face, a figure, or a bridal veil, but also quick scrawls for a handwritten letter or grass. She poses newlyweds in front of wallpaper, an intricate architecture, patterned flooring, and an equally patterned rug. Highlights snake across faces. They belong less to depth than to the picture plane, and they make porcelain skin tones and reserved expressions more unyielding as well.

Odutola stands out from the new academicism in reaching for narrative. Her past shows have had blunt messages but also a growing sympathy for both blacks and whites. Here she creates a history. While the new series has no obvious order, it unfolds implicitly over time. The balding patriarch still has a dark beard and a youthful vitality as he overlooks his estate—and then he sits with “her” scarf, with every implication of a loss. A portrait stands unfinished, as if the sitter could not hold out for an ending.

This black landowner has his inhuman side, too. His estate pulses like clouds for Charles Burchfield in the 1930s, while his high vantage point approaches landscape for Vincent van Gogh. The latter, though, roots his ethics and his art in the labor of those who tend the earth—here barely discernible and barely human. The demands press in on a young man, perhaps the heir apparent, throwing his head back against the wall. They leave a bridal veil as less a triumph than a mask. They may contribute to the anxiety of that boy in boarding school, clinging to oversize bedding even as it threatens to smother him.

The artist, too, has entered the aristocracy, but not as a trader or ambassador like her subjects. Still in her early thirties, she has a museum exhibition in the Whitney’s (free) first-floor gallery, with seventeen works from just the last year or so. “To Wander Determined” sounds like a contradiction in terms, but then her subjects feel those very contradictions. They assert their entitlement by abandoning work for leisure, where leisure means loosening one’s tie, and they leave unclear what they have contributed to Africa’s future. A pregnant woman casts her shadow where one might expect a reflection. With that portrait of an unfinished portrait, Odutola may be questioning or celebrating her artistry as well.

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