Critics’ Picks

Toyin Ojih Odutola, The Guilt of Looking, 2014, graphite pencil on black board, 20 x 30”.

Toyin Ojih Odutola, The Guilt of Looking, 2014, graphite pencil on black board, 20 x 30”.

New York

Toyin Ojih Odutola

Jack Shainman Gallery
513 West 20th Street
December 11, 2015–January 30, 2016

When Toyin Ojih Odutola began consistently showing work in New York five years ago, one could not but be struck by the maturity of her approach—portrait drawing at the scale of painting and with the tonal density of a photograph. Her figures are on the surface black, but she depicts them on a sub- or extradermal level, as a sinewy interlacing of hair or musculature. This show demonstrates new possibilities within this framework, as Ojih Odutola continues to expand her scale, materials, and emotional register.

A grid of modestly sized portraits at the front of the gallery will appeal to many, but the real gems here are pieces that intensify Ojih Odutola’s play of tonal contrast. The drawings Study of Aldo I and Study of Aldo II, both 2015, play with inverted value by making routine figural sketches into rich studies in tone and density, electrified by her use of white charcoal. Similarly, the smaller portrait The Guilt of Looking, 2014, uses an extreme economy of means—pencil—and produces not just verisimilitude but an uncanny aura around the figure’s coiffure and cashmere sweater. Viewing it conjures the strange light of a photogram or X-ray.

Elsewhere, the beauty typical of the artist’s figures gives way to a more menacing and spectral cast: With their piercing kaolin tones, the subject’s eyes in Soil Erosion, 2015, are at once transfixing and wraithlike; similarly, in Quality Control, also 2015, musculature is rendered gelid and orphic, as luminescent washes of cool blues and purples. Race seems suspended here, but that may be incidental—Ojih Odutola’s stunning formalism transports the viewer to invisible somatic topographies beneath and beyond the flesh.