Wednesday, 19 September 2007



(First published 20th December 2006)

These days abstraction in painting tends to be taken as a matter of degree and as various or manifold. No one can make or use a pure form, few still want to. Point, line and plane cannot be confined to any one formula for pigment, application or surface, anymore than colour, tone and shape can be isolated on absolute, minimal terms. Instead the task has become one of shrewd and patient variation upon accepted pattern or design. It is a project that takes in pictures and takes on technique. More modestly, it toys with differences or ambiguities between a scheme or style. On the one hand it invites rampant eclecticism (see Post 10) on the other it stretches a standard or common scheme to compromise and confusion. It abstracts a ready meaning or reference.

Odili Donald Odita’s work offers one way to follow this latter course. The Nigerian-born (U.S.-based) painter and critic has pursued a style of hard edges, flat colours, straight lines and acute angles for half a dozen or so years now with some distinction. The strong horizontal slant to much of his work, the mostly muted colours and occluded shapes give it an unmistakeable landscape orientation. In this, the flat colours and steady angles suggest a severe version of digital graphics, for a planar rendering of an aerial or distant perspective. Equally, it may allude to traditional West African decoration, in the casual, oblique cross-hatching. Then again, the hard edges and straight lines recall the cool approaches of a Gene Davis and stress the role of acute angles, the shape to colour. Odili as usefully tests for the concrete in older abstraction, as the abstract in more figurative or concrete depiction. Alternatively, the flat colours in perspectival planes recall the geometries of an Al Held and measure Odili’s more nuanced colour. Abstraction here is comfortable with depth, in perspectives or projections, in its casual eclipse by the concrete. It is abstract enough by these.

In his current show (at Jack Shainman NY, closes 22nd Dec) Odita also divides some works sharply with a central vertical axis. It surprisingly serves to accent the space or perspective and colour harmonies of one side or the other, can make the two halves appear to meet at right angles rather than just abut. But essentially it reinforces the space and colours generated by lines or planes meeting either side of a picture, and this emphasis on the sides remains the key to his pictures. Examples such as Double Vision build more complex versions of the axis, while Pulse stretches the range (in more ways than one) of colour and angle.

The play with depth, the cool surface of hard edges and flat colours is shared in current work by Sarah Morris, Torben Giehler, in part by Benjamin Edwards (stressing the digital) and Franz Ackermann. There are also surprising hints or intimations in the work from the 60s onward by Helen Lundeberg (see also article in Art in America, April 2005 – Michael Duncan ‘Landscape Seen and Thought’ pp.129-141). None are quite as elusive or abstract about depth, few as allusive and concrete about colour. His work is more abstract in some ways, less abstract in others. But what matters now is not degree of abstraction but the ability to abstract from a potent particular practice – to direct attention to an underlying culture or cultures. Abstraction is now a way of scanning or screening for these subtle threads to picture and design.

So Odita helps to demonstrate the resilience of abstraction, at a time dominated by attention to culture over art, shows that abstraction has still much to offer both art and culture. If abstraction no longer holds the attention it once had, or inspires its critics and champions quite as convincingly, it nonetheless remains a vital resource to painting, pictures and design.

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