Meet Odili Donald Odita, a tour de force in abstract painting as he explores color in a theory based, socio-historical context. Odita is known for his “showstoppers” that include installation art, photo-based pieces and a variety of other large scale media—all of which are displayed in his exhibition The Velocity of Change at Jack Shainman Gallery. In the following interview, Odita relays his own experiences as an artist and offers an inside look into his new show. All the while, he maintains a cogent theory of language and the necessity for change both in and beyond his art.
Quincy Childs: I am a Ludwig Wittgenstein fan myself, so I enjoyed your opening quote from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “The limits of language are the limits of my world.” Did you study the larger genre of modern critical theory or logic before reading him?
Odili Donald Odita: I first became interested in these considerations when I was in graduate school at Bennington College. In addition to Wittgenstein, we read Art in the Age of Mechanical Production by Walter Benjamin over and over again. We discussed that relative to photography and appropriation art. As I was developing my own practice, I would read Benjamin’s Arcades Project and Wittgenstein’s Theory of Color because of how the comments on color were questions, which prompted me to think about color in different situations. This led me to question other structures, such as language, which Wittgenstein centers on mainly [in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophico]. The quote encompasses the way I think about language, and more importantly, about art.
QC: Modern critical theory uses the tenant of binary language in feminist, queer and post colonialist theory – with the lattermost spearheaded by theoreticians such as Fanon, Saïd or Spivak. Did you reflect on these thinkers when creating this show?
ODO: I could say, in a trendy way, that’s so 1990’s! When I first moved to New York, I began writing for magazines like Okwui Enwezor’s magazine, NKA and realized that the debate to have was identity politics.
This was an exciting time. We were really living that moment of evolution towards political ideas of theory and post-colonialist, racial considerations. We would go to lectures by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Kwame Anthony Appiah, and bell hooks—running from one lecture to the next trying to communicate this idea of African contemporary art. It was a novel concept to people. The art world saw African art through a limited, traditional lens. A museum curator would present signs from a barber shop as contemporary African art because they really had no clue. It simply shows how even the most intellectual people work from what they know. To be informed is everything.
QC: Having studied both art and art theory, how have you seen ideation and conceptuality in art evolve during your lifetime?
ODO: I think art is always conceptual. What changes is the way in which we interpret a work’s concept and purpose. We have a different way of looking at art from people outside of our culture and timeframe, outside of Western ideation and reference.
Otherwise, we are vulnerable to a certain plateau of understanding. We must consider the world around us critically and make a choice from what we have access to. If not, we are governed by what people tell us, by language itself. We must understand what is being told to us on all levels in order to discern the world around us from all perspectives.
QC: So in the process of questioning social norms and discovering their ambiguity you reach a sense of enlightenment. It is a sort of “sine qua non” to unlocking the unknown and moving beyond your own context into a personal freedom. Is this what you mean?
ODO: Considering language as an artist, I have evolved to understand the kind of domination that language has within our reality and I try to reflect that through my art. Although language is universal, its various definitions are as subjective as its dialects. The history thereof elucidates the charged consequences of linguistic foundation. How we are embedded with racism through our very tool of communication. It is liberating once you realize how the formation of language forms us. The nature of how we see how everything is subject to change and growth. There is a newfound freedom in our ideas.
AR: This emphasis on change and freedom reminds me of the titles in your show. Concepts of change such as Chasm, Fissure, New World, Door to Revolution—they recall images of precisely this premise. How does the prospect of change tie in with your new work?
ODO: This ties back to our notion of words and colors. One cannot define a form or color. It will always be in vain to say red is a certain, definable thing. The statement loses meaning in its declaration. But simply instating “red is,” and stopping there, gives rise to new meanings. Because then red can be whatever you want it to be. You realize the creative potential of all things. Life does not end in words but actually preexists language and transcends ideas.
QC: A feeling exists before the idea. How are feelings conveyed through your materials? The laminate wood you use is striking against vibrant acrylic. What is the significance of this pairing?
ODO: It evokes a kind of virtual reality, as I alluded to with Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Production. I became fascinated by this idea when I was working with Plexiglas and paint and the synonymous relationship between the two. The quasi-futurist mirroring of Plexiglas heightens the colors in the paint and creates this virtual effect for the viewer. There arises this visual phenomenon of seeing oneself and then the paint or seeing oneself switch between presence and absence.
With the laminate wood panels, a sense of rituality is important in the reference to wood and nature but also in the fact that there’s a certain artifice to it because it is laminate. Like the Plexiglas, it is like a veneer, a surface, and refers to illusion. Here I am playing again with this idea of paint as a material. Paint as illusion—the illusionary versus natural aspects of the wood.
QC: How do you think your new work functions in your thematic timeline? Do you find it is a seamless evolution or a fluctuating process swayed by your context as an artist?
ODO: I think it’s a little bit of all the above. Although it’s taking from what already exists from past work and presenting it in a new context of architecture, body, and space.
My recent work with wall installations connects to the idea of installation itself and reconnects to its historic trend. Over the past century people have come to see a painting as an individual object. Instead I want the body to consider its space, where we are aware of every step or get totally lost in the routine of movements without consciously thinking about it. It’s all an experience, a situation for the body, and we can turn those experiences into art. Art helps us feel alert about our spaces and thus alert about experiences we have in the world.
AR: Do you believe your Nigerian roots influence your art?
ODO: Absolutely. It informs my art and the way I think. It is just as informative as my access to minimalist art while I was at graduate school. It is very grounding for me and it helps to consider my reality as an artist. For instance, we can talk about the “death of painting” and I understand that as a Western notion. This gives me liberty. I’m more relaxed about painting because I can see it from many perspectives. From a modernist African point of reference, as with the notion of language, you must know the history and context of things in order to discern reality. Grasping the scope of history and context can help us understand the full space of action and agency we have. It gives us power.
This week is your last chance to catch Odili Donald Odita’s exhibition The Velocity of Change at Jack Shainman Gallery, on view through January 30, 2016.