Cover Story: The Thinker

Odili Donald Odita plans to turn the CAC lobby into a conversation about art

Stacy Recht Czar

Odili Donald Odita

On Oct. 11, artist Odili Donald Odita will begin his transformation of the Contemporary Arts Center's lobby. Odita's installation, Flow, will remain in the space until April 2008, but perhaps the most interesting part of his work will be its creation.

In keeping with new CAC Director Raphaela Platow's vision of the lobby — as a place of social interaction as well as artistic happenings — Odita's transformation will start off as a communicative and performance piece. For three weeks, the artist and his assistant plan to paint the walls, the stairwells, the desk and the beams in Odita's signature color-field meets op-art style.

The CAC lobby is largely glass and concrete. We've heard about Zaha Hadid's architecture — her concept of the "urban carpet" bringing the sidewalk inside the center. As Platow has said, however, the metaphor might be beautiful, but the reality hasn't hit. There still exists a divide between the passersby on Sixth and Walnut and the museum itself. But not for long.

Leave it to Platow to tap Odita for the job.

Leave it to Odita, an artist born in Nigeria but raised in Columbus, Ohio, to make it happen.

"It's a third-world building, non-Western," Odita says from his studio in Philadelphia, where he's a professor of fine art at Temple University's Tyler School of Art. "I appreciate the structure (of Hadid's design). It's almost destabilized. You're not sure where one thing ends and another begins."

Odita thinks of that feeling of instability as a complexity, not a detriment. He sees an equal amount of it in his own painting.

A person with passing knowledge of modern and contemporary art might at first find Odita's work familiar: bold strokes of color, geometric precision, jutting, almost disconcerting landscape lines. The artist is aware of that first-glance recognition. He talks about his attraction to art stars like Sol LeWitt, Ad Reinhardt and Jackson Pollock during his post-graduate degrees.

"It looks familiar, but it's not," he says. "Some people will walk away without realizing there's more."

The more of which Odita speaks is an engagement not only with the installation space or the canvas but also with the world around him. The information he picked up studying LeWitt, Reinhardt and Pollock weren't enough for him. Odita soon branched out into conceptual art, art by female artists like Elizabeth Murray and minorities — people both inside and outside the great art institutions.

If you plug Odita's name into a search engine, you'll find that he's traditionally billed as an African artist despite the fact that he has lived in the United States since shortly after his birth.

"I grew up in an international house," he says of his childhood in central Ohio.

His father is a professor of African Art and Archeology at Ohio State University. His own history lives in Columbus as much as in Nigeria.

His family was open to ideas and concepts of other cultures, which, he says is "very Nigerian." Aspects of different cultures came and went in his own house, and yet a largely conservative population surrounded him.

"We all get entrenched in our own reality," Odita says. "Kids believe in just a few things, and they believe in them passionately."

His classmates' realities were narrower than his own. They weren't born on a different continent and didn't have household traditions seemingly unique to the community in which he lived.

"Having (that sort of background) affects you on a lot of different levels," he says. "Explicative levels and subtle levels."

So, in that sense, Odita's paintings reflect the complexity of his multicultural upbringing. On the surface, his work can seem to blend in to a whole generation of abstract art, just like Odita himself seems like just your average American guy.

But both artist and art beg you to take a closer look. Inspired by the complex nature of personal histories, Odita's painting is wrought with movement.

The colors of landscape dash around. Horizon lines push into one another. There is a sense of melding and, at the same time, a sense of violent collision.

Critics often call his paintings "internal geographies." It's not difficult to understand why.

Though he hasn't started work on his CAC installation, the idea of it has already inspired him. He speaks of the large open space of the lobby, with its enormous windows, as both inside and outside.

"I was taken by the space," he says. "Outside without being overwhelmed by the sound of cars ... (and) inside without feeling claustrophobic."

He invites Cincinnatians to come watch him paint and specifically to ask him questions about his art. He is a thinker as much as an artist. ©

Q: What's the coolest thing about you?

Odili Donald Odita: "My cigar motorcycle jacket collection."

Q: What do you think is the coolest thing about Cincinnati?

Odita: "The pace of life and the rolling hills, two things I didn't think existed there."

Q: Who are the coolest up-and-coming artists?

Odita: "Remy Jungerman, Giong Ang and Trinity Session with Stephen Hobbes."