*, a museological study
Toyin Ojih Odutola at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Helen Johnson at the New Museum
When it comes to female artists, I believe in the blockbuster show, the hit it out of the park, my-God-how-do-we-not-know-this-artist-yet?, dramatic installation. But I’m warming to an approach I’ve seen recently, which I will call the asterisk exhibition. The two I’ve seen in the last few months have been one-room exhibitions in museum lobbies that are, notably (as the admission price at these museums is $18+), free. Toyin Ojih Odutola: To Wander Determined at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Helen Johnson: Ends at the New Museum are not part of the Laura Owens retrospective or Triggered: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon (the other programming in these museums, respectively), but when taken together they, at best, draw unexpected lines between artists and themes in each, and, at worst (which is still pretty good), expand the variety of voices a museum is able to present its audiences, with minimal additional effort.
The asterisk exhibition is important, and the fact that many young, living female artists are featured in them as of late bodes well for the future of exhibition programming (I hope). Perhaps a litmus test for determining the popularity of a certain artist, I believe they simply work as effective exposure to new names, regardless of their future worthiness of the main gallery space.
So allow me two mini exhibition reviews for these two mini-exhibitions, one perhaps more worthy of the other for the role of headliner, but both worthy of the slice of exposure they’ve received this past year.
Toyin Ojih Odutola: To Wander Determined
As with any state-sponsored cultural exhibit, this single gallery show in the lobby of the Whitney does not require a ticket for entry. It includes the American debut of the ancestral collections of two lines of prominent Nigerian aristocracy, united by marriage. Or does it? Two parts series and one part performance art, Toyin Ojih Odutola is proving the portrait has powerful potential left in it to speak volumes about its subjects’ place in the world.
Ojih Odutola herself assumes a bureaucratic persona as a gloss to her art, as if she is the cultural attaché who has curated this show (see the above wall text), rather than its creator, having summoned it from her own imagination and creative drive. She paints a fantasyland that draws its exceptionality from its normalcy. The achievement here is in its nonchalance, in how long it took me to “figure it out.” Normalcy here is the point. But then so is the potential for this normalcy to be upsetting.
The image of the black body is historically at odds with the objects we associate with wealth: the portrait, the ancestral collection of Old World furniture, the bound volume of genealogy, and yet all these objects appear in Ojih Odutola’s paintings on view, associated in relation to black bodies, and what’s more, with a black family whose legacy is blissfully empty of strife. Ojih Odutola has imagined a history of Nigeria as if imperialism never happened. This is, of course, an unreality constructed using art’s power to invent. The possibility of such a world of normalcy is bewilderingly attractive in this particular era of history, and to believe it for a moment, perhaps too hopeful to bear.
Helen Johnson: Ends
Helen Johnson: Ends cannot be mistaken as a part of the upstairs exhibition (strangely, these light, pop-y, layered canvases would be right at home next to Laura Owens’), but is no stranger to themes that run beneath the surface of any self-aware post-colonial artist in the Commonwealth. The power structure inherent in gender difference is sometimes distinct, sometimes parallel to the structures that govern contemporary race relations, but Johnson takes a much more oblique approach than many of the artists upstairs in the New Museum’s main exhibition Triggered: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon, as she obstructs rather than exposes its nefariousness. As an Australian, Johnson has encountered the difficulty of grappling with a past we are all too familiar with: how to conceive of an identity built on exploitation and robbery, all the while inventing a national character distinct from the colonizer. The result is like piled stencils: taken as a whole it is impossible to work out a single shape, but perhaps being whole is beside the point.
I do wish we were given at least some encouragement in pulling apart the many layers of these well-worked canvases by the curator through an object label or additional wall text. Even with production notes neatly printed by hand on the exposed backs of the suspended paintings, I was left unable to interpret their meaning, maybe more than was intended.
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Johnson’s show title “Ends” is derived from a question she asks of her paintings: “is it that a painting’s life in the studio ends when it leaves the studio, or is it that its life in the world begins?" What is the significance of the asterisk exhibition? I would like to ask the same question of these women: is it that their fledgling careers have ended when these exhibitions are taken down, or is it that their blockbuster careers have just begun?