San Francisco

Thomas Akawie

Janet Steinberg

Amid the prevalent cacophony of vivid, expressionistic art, Thomas Akawie’s shadowy monochromes project a resonant silence. Instead of reflecting personal and geopolitical anxieties, Akawie quietly contemplates the otherworldly. His atmospheric blue gray images of enigmatic entities seen against subtly textured surfaces suggest the way commonplace objects take on an aura of the strange when focused on for extended periods, or, as evoked by Akawie’s silvery light, when viewed under moonlight.

Two of the strongest works among the 14 on view frame this investigation of surreal nocturnal perception through a dialectical format. Darkness and Being, 1984, depicts a narrow wooden handlelike object partially within a swath of light and against a dim wall marked by very slight vertical striations. These meticulously rendered disparate surfaces, seen in sharp highlight and muted shadow, demonstrate Akawie’s finesse with airbrush technique, and prompt a mood of quiet scrutiny of the nuances of pattern and shading. Beneath the handle’s diagonal angle a small beam of light emerges, suggesting that it has escaped from a hole cut through to a more illuminated environment. The image evokes the mysteries of visual and mental states of “darkness and being,” and of a psychic or supernatural “other side” (whether it is a dark, irrational side or an enlightened, spiritual one) of which only rare, fleeting, and fragmentary insights (visions, intuitions) provide a glimpse. The work speaks of connecting with these special sources of knowledge, which as a source of inspiration produce an art sometimes referred to as “visionary.” This is a characteristic theme of certain postwar Bay Area art, yet a distinction of Akawie’s painting is that he works not with psychedelic fantasies and naively pantheistic or pseudo-medieval appropriations (“visionary” art at its hokey worst), but through a sophisticated rendering of light and shadow upon simple objects, albeit not always self-evident ones.

A few of the canvases appear as material displays of Akawie’s airbrush virtuosity: the intricate textural fields of Peaks and Puckers, Respectful Mirror and Chinese Landscape in Flesh and Gold, both 1984, resemble luxurious wallpaper. In other works the enigmatic objects, depicted against a flat surface, carry less of an allusive charge. The horizontally bisected Two Rings, 1984, however, does convey symbolic meaning, and through a very pared-down compositional format. Again, Akawie sets up a tension between dualities: the lower half of the work is a darker silvery gray than the upper; while a small smooth worm twists—as if digging out of wet sand—into almost a circle in each half, it rotates in opposite directions in each. A beam of light spreads across the faintly sparkling surface as though the location were the seashore at night, creating an eerie atmosphere that suggests primal forces. But ultimately the rigorous separation into lighter and darker halves seems an artificial, overconceptualized, and unnecessary division, as both sides contain a play of animalistic energy, although each forms a circle from different inclinations.

Suzann Boettger