CINCINNATI — We are saturated by media messaging. It stands to reason, then, that video and interdisciplinary art are popular contemporary art forms — the collage-like nature of those media match the constant barrage of imagery, advertising, and sensory inputs we receive on a daily basis. So where does that leave the hallowed medium of painting? How can one static image begin to capture lived experience, at a time when one might literally need to embark on a meditation retreat to truly focus on a single subject?
The work of Njideka Akunyili Crosby, currently on display in Predecessors at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, answers this question with astonishing polish and grace: You can contain many images in one. What could potentially feel like an overwhelming mishmash of imagery instead becomes a fluid tapestry, controlled by Crosby’s extraordinary sensitivity to balance, perspective, and palette.
Crosby rarely works in sequence, but perennially returns to themes and images. Here, we repeatedly see a table altar from her grandmother’s home, a heavyweight orange pot (that often acts as a symbolic proxy for her grandmother), and an intergenerational trio of women who are Crosby’s grandmother, mother, and sister (referred to as “Mama, Mummy, and Mamma”).
This exhibition, co-curated and co-organized by CAC and the Tang Museum at Skidmore College, represents the first time that even Crosby has been able to see all the work in The Predecessors, which spans at least half a decade, on display together. Of the five large-scale works on display, two came from collections in South Africa, a couple from the United States, and one — the impressive 2013 Predecessors diptych — from London’s Tate Modern collection.
These works hang together in one of the CAC’s oddly angled galleries — a narrow space that evokes a chapel-like ambience, appropriate for the meditative viewing these works demand. Each presents an ostensibly simple subject — a jumble of objects on a tabletop, a seated female figure, a couple in an intimate embrace on a couch — but these surface images are composed of multitudinous layers. In each painting, you find smaller image fragments, including found media from Nigerian fashion magazines and tabloids, and original images of objects photographed by Crosby and image-transferred onto paper. Abstract shapes emerge out of these thin paper layers, creating patchwork zones that break up the rich colors.
Sometimes these fields of painting and photography divide cleanly between foreground and background, as with “The Twain Shall Meet” (2015), which is the destination point at the furthest reach of the gallery, and serves as a kind of visual thesis for Predecessors. In this piece, an altar assembled by the artist’s grandmother — comprised of pictures, icons, cookware, and lanterns, and photographed extensively by Crosby in her grandmother’s Nigerian home following her passing — is presented in a neo-Cubist split perspective. All the objects on the table are rendered by layering bright photo paper, while the background is a formal arrangement of doors, walls, and floor in a controlled, almost chalky palette.
In other works, the mélange of media images bleed into the painted subjects, giving Crosby’s seated females — sometimes her sister, sometimes herself, sometimes an abstracted blend of the two (or more) — subtle full-sleeve tattoos, which upon closer inspection are images of Nigerian front-cover models. In some, the media whirl is relegated to the background, forming decorative panels, or literally filling the shadows with a kaleidoscope of imagery.
Even as one admires Crosby’s ability to subtly nudge painting into the ADHD era, one has to wonder if these are, ultimately, paintings. According to the curator, Steven Matijcio, Crosby refers to her pieces as “works on paper”; she begins each of her works with a large piece of heavyweight paper, hung with binder clips, rather than a traditional frame. I am rarely one to sink into a painting — much the product of my generation and multi-sensory proclivities — but Crosby establishes painting as a medium with the capacity for new and multi-dimensional life.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby: Predecessors continues at the Contemporary Arts Center (44 East 6th Street, Cincinnati) through October 1.