Odili Donald Odita: Third Space

Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania
September 5, 2008 – December 6, 2009

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Sight, Space, Body: Odili Donald Odita’s Dialogues with Painting

“Someday, not soon, there will be another kind of painting, far from the easel, far from beyond the easel, since our environment indoors is four walls, usually flat. Color to continue had to occur in space.” —Donald Judd, 1994

Thirty years before writing these words, Judd had declared painting to be thoroughly finished. As an artist, he moved away from painting toward sculpture, integrating the experience of time, the dimensions of the human body, and references to the installation site into his strain of Minimalism. A generation earlier, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and other Abstract Expressionists had extensively explored the flat surface of the canvas, and modernist critic Clement Greenberg extolled their virtues, promoting an embrace of “flatness” as integral to the inherent properties of paint and canvas, and influencing a generation of formalist critics. Formalist criticism notoriously condemned other strains of painting that emerged in the 1960s, such as Op art and its strategies of destabilized perception. Op defied the flatness of its support, largely eschewed color, and became the brief locus of a hot debate on the politics and aesthetics of mid-century painting.

It is half a century after this moment that Odili Donald Odita enters this dialogue, harnessing color and the destabilizing properties of form, and expanding both into space. In the ten years he has spent working in an abstract mode, he has developed a unique visual language. Odita breaks his surfaces into interlocking horizontal, multicolored, hard-edged forms, constituting both individual paintings and whole environments. Defined by the sharp edges of adjacent colors, and by the sheer amount of colors used in any given painting (ranging from tens to hundreds), these forms are a “breaking open”— a complete visual fragmentation—of hard-edge abstraction.

In ICA’s ramp, Odita has created an environment that immerses us in this visual language—a series of large-scale paintings, which cohere to create a single installation, entitled Third Space. Although rooted in the abstract paradigm, Odita’s painted expanses alternately evoke the rhythmic patterns of African design (such as Ewe and Kente cloth from Ghana, Mbuti bark cloth painting from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and gourd decoration of northeastern Nigeria), glowing, striated landscapes, television test patterns, and computer screen savers. Like Ewe and Kente, his work is at the intersection of Africa and the West. Born in 1966 in Enugu, Nigeria, Odita was raised in Columbus, Ohio, and his evolving practice speaks to a cohort of influences: quintessentially immersive American media culture, a father who was both an artist and historian of African art, postcolonial discourse, and the experience of diaspora.

It is perhaps this awareness of place, both cultural and geographic, which underpins Odita’s work. This awareness operates on several levels, perhaps most noticeably in the response of the installation to the Ramp—a challenging site for any installation given its sloping floors, exceptionally high walls, and sharp angles. The installation begins at the base of the Ramp, in low-ceilinged, somewhat darker transitional space, here painted a soft gray-blue to accentuate its quiet atmosphere (“like a sarcophagus” as Odita puts it). From this position one can glimpse the main installation at the far end of the Ramp; a small wall painting in similarly soft, seemingly translucent tones portends the imagery to come.

Walking up the Ramp gradually reveals the physical scope of the installation. The high wall at the mid-point of the space is almost entirely covered in zigzagging, fragmented forms, and the wall along the upper level of the Ramp bears an unfolding, angular ribbon of those forms. One is brought by the narrowness of the passage into close proximity with the painting on the lower wall—face to face with the same forms that are visible a story above. In continuing up into the space, one notices a change in perspective with each movement and vantage point. Each possible position within the Ramp allows views of some walls and omits others, providing dramatically different interplays of shape and form. The stretch of painting, for example, along the upper Ramp wall appears flat from certain perspectives, and in others, appears to have a fold-like depth. Seen from outside through the Ramp’s windows, both the upper and lower walls seem flattened into a single painting, the shapes of the interlocking forms both framed and echoed by the skewed parallelograms of the window.

The expanses of painting work individually and together to respond to the architectural features of the space. Spiky “blasts”shoot out from the tops of the interior windows, slanting in opposition to the angle of the windows, creating a dynamic tension. The span of each blast is determined by the span of each interconnected window (a modernist tactic of site and surface responsivity employed by Judd, among others). The unfolding, horizontal strip of painting on the upper Ramp wall is set high to draw one’s eye to both the height and the rapid decline of the space, and the small wall set above the entranceway (also only visible at a distance) bears a different style of interlocking forms, more vertical than horizontal, the shapes evocative of an abstract stained-glass window (which, as typically found in places of worship, are similarly inaccessible and only seen from a distance).

Odita’s strategic use of color also operates in response to the site. Combinations of shades, along with the abstract forms they define, underlie the perceptual shifts of the paintings. When viewed as a whole (to the extent that this is possible in the space) the colors are not discordant, but neither are they wholly complementary. Rather, their carefully planned juxtapositions (a bright orange next to a bright yellow, a rose next to a brilliant blue and deep purple) exude a subtle tension and vibration. Color placement also responds beyond the site itself to the space outside: the painted expanses framing the windows employ mainly “cool” colors, predominated by blues, in complementary anticipation of the forms of barren trees and pale light of winter.

The sheer multitude of colors in the space (115 in all, each individually selected from among thousands of commercially available housepaint shades) and their formal and conceptual function is at the crux of Odita’s practice. Individual colors inevitably provoke subjective cultural and psychological associations, and their juxtapositions amount to the addition of narrative inflection to an abstract mode, as well as an instigation of an overwhelming sensory overload. Our associations with individual colors, and our inability to absorb at a glance (or several) a broad expanse of them, contributes to a sense of physical destabilization. Odita’s work does not exhibit the characteristic optical assault (sometimes called a “bodily repulse”) of Op art, a style of painting that was quickly co- opted from the canvases of Bridget Riley into popular design. It does, however, employ Op’s use of periodic structure–a compositional device that involves the methodical repetition of a specific shape, which gives way to irregularities in its placement. (2) Odili’s forms repeat in each painting, with a range of variations, seamed together and distinguished by color. In doing so, his painting underscores the same connection between haptics and optics that Op did—an inevitable awareness of one’s body when in proximity to the work.

While Odita takes up the formal elements of the 1960s, his work assumes a contemporaneous philosophical perspective. In “Eye and Mind” (1960), philosopher Maurice Merleau- Ponty asserted the indivisibility of the haptic and the optic. (3) According to Merleau-Ponty, the task of a painter is to explore the process of seeing, and Odita’s work, a poetic and philosophical examination of perception and our relationship to the aesthetic, investigates painting as a form of vision instead of representation, proposing that looking is a reflexive act, as well as a visceral one. By extending painting (and by extension, color) beyond both the easel and its surrounding four walls into the core of our perception, he reminds us of the conceptual potential of all painting to do the same. Half a century in the making, the dialogue continues.

—Stamatina Gregory

(1) Donald Judd, “Some Aspects of Color in General and Red and Black in Particular,” in Artforum 32 (Summer 1994): 113.

(2) Pamela Lee discusses Op’s periodic structure in “Bridget Riley’s Eye/Body Problem,” in October 98 (Autumn 2001): 32.

(3) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” (1960) in Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, ed. James M. Edie (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1964).

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Odili Donald Odita: Third Space | 2008 | about