Sometime in late 1997, at the former site of the New Museum, I was introduced to a seemingly dejected young painter named Odili Donald Odita. I say “dejected” because he claimed his career was going nowhere. I said something to the effect that maybe he was placing too much emphasis on his career rather than giving himself credit for the quality present in the paintings. The conversation continued. In the years that followed, things for Odita slowly began to change.
Since then I have had the occasion to view several exhibitions of his paintings in venues both domestic and foreign. In addition to four shows that Odita has had over the years at Jack Shainman Gallery, an early exhibition at the former Alexandre de Folin Gallery on West 20th Street stands out in my mind, as does his large site-specific wall installation at the entrance to the international exhibition at the 2007 Venice Biennale.
In each case, Odita has focused on diagonal, hard-edge color combinations, emphasizing color values and varying hues. His intention is not to illustrate color theory in his work, but to harden the gesture in painting in a manner that gives it dynamic force. Color becomes the vehicle in his work, a prerequisite to form. In contrast to theory, Odita works from a more intuitive perspective in arranging colors without gradation, thus holding the surface flat while maintaining variable depths of spatial illusion. In doing so, his paintings — whether stretched on canvas, painted on pre-fab wood panels, or applied directly to the wall — suggest a kind of conflicted illusory motion intended to inflect emotion.
Odita’s current show at Jack Shainman Gallery has several examples of this. In “Other World” (2015), Odita’s extended color triangles move radically in opposition to one another. In “Distant Relative” (2015), the upper and lower sections of acrylic latex on a pre-fab door or tabletop appear interrupted by the manufactured design of the vertical space between them. And finally, in the show’s namesake, “The Velocity of Change” (2015), which appears directly on the right wall as one enters the gallery, the intervals of white space between the clearly defined, occasionally fractured sets of colored wedges simultaneously pause and accentuate the rhythmic momentum within the mural.
While attending Bennington College, Odita was exposed to Color Field painting, in which the issue of emotion was generally displaced in relation to the formal structure embedded in the painting’s surface. But his adaptation of sharp diagonals — an attribute of form mostly foreign to Color Field painters, other than Kenneth Noland’s Chevrons (1963–64) — offered Odita the potential to grapple with emotional content through formal conflict. In his paintings, emotion arises in the clashing, congregated, dynamic thrusts, often framing intervals of whiteness or natural surface left open.
Odita’s careful compositions are fundamental to the unpredictable manner in which his colors either conflict or coalesce with one another. The diagonals so familiar in his work do not always move the eye in a particular direction now, as they did at the outset of his career. More often than not, he willfully subverts his own placement of color spires, as shown in the four paintings mounted in the rear gallery at Shainman’s 24th Street location.
Each of these paintings is isolated on its own wall, contained within its own space. The spires are visually jarring, as if to perpetuate an element of anxiety. We don’t contemplate the paintings so much as attempt to grasp the conflicting elements that energize their clamoring internal spaces. Two of the works, “The Door to Revolution” and “Chasm” (both 2015), possess a similar structure, in that they’re both diagonally situated tripartite compositions. But the manner in which we see the vertically placed “Door to Revolution” is different from the way we see “Chasm,” which is horizontal. The former offers a more typical urban reference, while the latter takes us into the crumbling, downgraded suburbs.
Each surface of the four paintings in the rear gallery is “cut” into three sections. By ordering the complexity of these distinct, intersecting color diagonals, the artist paradoxically unifies them. The optical ambiguities come to the surface and then recede again into chaos, shifting between order and disorder. Odita’s surfaces act as windows that imply content, prompting a kind of seeing that provokes thought. The synaptic charge between the retina and cerebral cortex provokes content in relation to form. In the wedge-like spires of color that characterize Odita’s paintings, we see subjects, not only by way of association with what exists in the visible world, but by way of feelings emanating from an unknown source.
From Odita’s perspective, the flat surface of his paintings further suggests a “ground of whiteness” that exists prior to the application of color. This paradigm points to the application of shapes and color as symbolic of identity. I have difficulty getting a perspective on this, but I am taken with Odita’s exploration of human consciousness and the manner in which we perceive variations of color and feeling in the angular complexities he has given us.
Odili Donald Odita: The Velocity of Change continues at Jack Shainman Gallery (524 W 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through January 30.