Sensuality in Precision: Njideka Akunyili Crosby at the BMA

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Counterparts, A Solo Exhibition by Njideka Akunyili Crosby at the Baltimore Museum of Art by Cara Ober

A painter is not a camera. A Vermeer interior might appear to be an aggregation of light and shadow upon all the objects that define a space, but what you are actually seeing is a ruthlessly edited synopsis. Based upon the artist’s ability to classify, to emphasize and omit, a vision more lively than life itself materializes on the canvas. A painter is not a renderer or translator, but an editor of the highest order.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, confirmed as a MacArthur genius in 2017, offers the laser-sharp observation of a Vermeer through similarly quiet interior paintings, but smartly updates them with contemporary materials and message. Her solo exhibition in the BMA’s Front Room, Counterparts, features six large site-specific mixed media paintings on paper and is a testament to her skills as a conjurer of visual intimacy, a strategic thinker, designer, and accomplished student of art history.

As with Vermeer and other masterful painters of interiors featuring humans like Bonnard, Matisse, Ingres, and even Diebenkorn, Akunyili Crosby is able to create a palpable sense of intimacy and make it available to anyone gazing into her dreamy vignettes. It’s not so much the artist’s technical skill, which is considerable given four years of classical training at the Pennsylvania Academy, sandwiched between undergraduate study at Swarthmore and graduate school at Yale, but her ability to distill elusive memory, the feeling of sitting within one’s own swirling narratives, into an accessible visual composition that makes her work special.

Akunyili Crosby not only creates believable and appealing spaces that dazzle your eyes, but she invites you to join her—to enter into that space–with generous surface detail, harmonious color, an array of pattern, charming personal details, and seamless inversions between painted rendering and collaged photos.

“As We See You: Embarassment of Riches” at Left

In “As We See You: Embarassment of Riches,” a plummy purple dominates the entire scene where a floating tabletop functions as repoussoir, a visual framing device that directs your attention from the foreground back into deeper space. The table is piled with diabetic-inducing treats, including crystal candy dishes of M&M’s and Hershey Kisses, a plate of cookies with cartoon icing of Pilgrims and Indians, a dramatic silver server full of Chex Mix, African tchotchke figures bearing large platters of sweets, and an apple pie.

The striped lavender-on-violet wallpaper hosts a gilded oval mirror where the artist gazes at you, soft in the distance but still serious and quiet. You gaze, as she does, around a corner into a suburban Los Angeles living room with Mid-century modern couches and leather chairs, and a sense of American suburban abundance, coupled with discomfort. The painting offers a shrewd assessment of these sugar-laden snacks as a symbol of America’s careless wealth. Each object is painted in a clean, virtuostic style where brush strokes are used economically to build surface but not for unnecessary embellishment and collaged photo transfers work interchangeably with painted elements. In this interior we see the artist as she sees herself: hovering between two worlds, simultaneously appreciative and critical of the casual display of prosperity in front of her.

Akunyili Crosby’s immigration from Nigeria as a teen imbues her work with a timely and topical political subtext, but her narratives manage to be universally domestic, portraying quiet moments which explore her relationship to her home, her parents, in particular her mother, Dora Akunyili, a pharmacist who became the director of the Nigerian equivalent of the FDA and a national hero, and to her American husband Justin Crosby. Not only is Akunyili Crosby showing us the value she places upon family and home, she presents analogous visions of her past in Nigeria with her current status as an American immigrant, pointing out that family life everywhere is mundane and rife with sentimentality.

Regardless of prior knowledge of Nigeria, the scenes connect with viewers across boundaries of class, race, and nationality without heavy-handedness or patronizing. These paintings proclaim that home is home, no matter where you are from.

“As We See You: Dreams of Jand”

In the Nigerian counterpart to “Embarassment of Riches,” titled “As We See You: Dreams of Jand,” a mirrored composition with a similarly cropped table features a different range of small objects, including a Kris Okotie album cover inspired directly by Michael Jackson. The artist presents Nigerian magazine clippings as wallpaper, and includes symbols of British colonialism, including settings for afternoon tea. Again, the artist offers both admiration and criticism of the Nigerian interior; it is neither fraught nor perfect and symbols are subtle. In both paintings, a dense coalescing of objects, mostly personal and mundane, evidence a normal life complicated by context, culture, economy, regret, and nostalgia.

Although relevant in an America governed by a racist goon who has fanned the flames of prejudice against immigrants and people of color, Akunyili Crosby’s works are successful because they simultaneously embrace and transcend time and place. Their aim goes well beyond politics to the formal issues that have governed the tradition of painting for centuries. She holds her own in this trajectory, both by mastering and intentionally breaking established traditions of composition and also by telling her own unique story.

All great art is narrative and self reflective; that Akunyili Crosby’s personal story is politically, racially, and socially relevant adds to the work’s power, but her work should retain congruency even in a distant future (where current political issues are irrelevant) based upon the precision of the visual tactics she insists upon.

Working within the tradition of great art historical painters, Akunyili Crosby seamlessly integrates the strategies of her predecessors into new bodies of work. Although Vuillard, the painter of claustrophobic wallpaper-and-mommy-infused interiors, is an often cited influence, the screen prints of Andy Warhol and the poolside vignettes of David Hockney seem more relevant to her luxurious mode of representation, which incorporates mixed media collages and transfers from Nigerian newspapers, family photos, and images from pop culture with smooth painted surfaces that segue seamlessly from flat color shapes to the illusion of depth.

“Dwell: Me, We” and “Dwell: Aso Ebi”

The two largest paired paintings, “Dwell: Me, We” and “Dwell: Aso Ebi” are the most compelling in the show. Both feature the artist as the subject, wearing the same patterned dress, her hair pulled into a ballerina-style bun. As she sits in quiet repose, the surroundings take on meaning around her.

In “Also Ebi,” a commemorative cloth featuring her mother functions as wallpaper, with a giant wedding portrait of her parents filling the wall. A smaller photo, Akunyili Crosby’s own wedding portrait, sits below. An industrial green color plane snakes in to function as floor and a sliver of wall while collaged transfers from Nigerian publications make up the rest of the background and, more importantly, functions as the noise in the figure’s head. Despite sitting alone she doesn’t look lonely, rather contemplative, surrounded by memories, ideas, and images of her homeland. Like her parents, framed on the wall, Akunyili Crosby communicates the presence of family ancestry as the fabric of one’s life. In this particular scene, the visual noise isn’t overwhelming nor is it decorative: it appears to gel with the figure in a partnership, where thoughts, memories, and the silent breathing at one’s own dining room table all come together in one gloriously quotidian moment.

The mirrored American counterpart, “Me, We,” which pictures the artist facing the opposite direction, features empty walls patterned with pale blue stripes and Nigerian transfer patterns glazed dark blue functioning as floor. The room is less elaborate than its pair, but includes a dog laying on a pillow in the corner, a comforting presence. They’re easy to miss, but a bobble-head figurine of Colin Kaepernick and a small succulent houseplant function as symbols of Akunyili Crosby’s Americanism; the nod towards Black Lives Matter activism in a children’s toy is a gentle way to acknowledge the conflicting feelings that most Americans share about our collective history.

On top of these densely composed and compositionally paired narratives created specifically for the BMA gallery, Akunyili Crosby has added an additional art historical and formal challenge for herself: to subtly integrate visual elements from the museum’s permanent collection.

“Untitled (Water)” by Felix Gonzalex-Torres and “Flower Observatory” by Olafur Eliason

As you face the two largest, ‘twin’ images of the show, you can’t avoid also seeing “Untitled (Water)” by Felix Gonzalex-Torres, a monumental blue-green curtain of sparkly beads in the next gallery at far left and “Flower Observatory” by Olafur Eliason, a massive steel and mirror sculpture that is best viewed from underneath arched columns, in the corner of each eye. Both works reference the interior architecture that Akunyili Crosby seamlessly incorporates into her compositions, full of doorways, arches, and striped curtains, embodying liminal space and presenting a subtle Easter Egg of recognition for viewers who pick up on it and a visual harmony in the gallery for those who don’t.

Understanding that this is an artist who chooses rigorous conceptual and formal assignments for herself, regardless of anyone besides her caring about such things, is paramount in comprehending the precision and subsequent success of her work overall.

Precision might seem like a harsh, unemotional descriptor for admittedly dreamy works, but Akunyili Crosby’s paintings thrive upon a scaffolding of order and structure, where fixed compositions allow layers of emotional narrative to surface unhindered, uninterrupted. In every Akunyili Crosby painting, media and concept are deeply, irrevocably intertwined.

The six paintings in Counterparts appear to effortlessly straddle a wild array of concerns, cultures, compositions, and painting tactics into cohesive interior scenes, but there are no unplanned accidents in Akunyili Crosby’s work. Even in the conception of an exhibition and the creation of six original paintings, the artist was thinking ten steps ahead, envisioning every possible outcome and building an elaborate framework in order to gain specific results.

Although they are immediately welcoming from a distance and easy on the eyes, Crosby’s paintings in Counterparts are not visual candy. Up close, they are deep and generous, revealing their secrets slowly and deliberately, drawing you into a lovely respite from ordinary life, a distilled escape into a world of quietude where the viewer can choose to luxuriate in the artist’s cultural heritage, in symbols of American life, or ponder their own ancestral history. It’s as if she has worked so hard, and loved these paintings so uncompromisingly, that we are allowed to do so as well.

“Home: As You See Me”

Front Room: Njideka Akunyili Crosby: Counterparts was curated by Kristen Hileman and will be on exhibit through March 18, 2018.

Top Image: “Dwell: Aso Ebi.” 2017.

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