On ViewDavid Zwirner
Coming Back to See Through, Again
May 23–July 29, 2023
This is Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s first one-person exhibition with David Zwirner, as well as one of the inaugural presentations at the gallery’s Los Angeles location. Opening on the aptly named Western Avenue in a neighborhood that has connections to LA art history beyond Ed Ruscha’s first studio up the street, it is fitting that the work of an artist based in Los Angeles—relatively new to the esteemed gallery and the layered context of her chosen home—literally starts the enterprise. (This makes the west-to-east move of the exhibition in September to the New York gallery rather symbolic.) Comprised of nine substantial works on paper made between 2019 and 2023 (the most recent having been completed in the gallery just before opening day), the exhibition provides a solid opportunity to discover that what at first glance seems to be work that is too self-reflexive in terms of image and process, does, in key places, open up to experiences and possibilities beyond itself. Put another way, they can be seen as multivalent acts of recovery and projection.
At first, Akunyili Crosby’s pervasive use of photographic transfer—taken from her personal archive as well as the breadth of Nigerian life as pictured in mass-media—appears to provide a literal pathway for the world outside of the work to enter: a goal of collage since at least Synthetic Cubism in which it had a certain shock value. Here, instead, the neatly arranged assortment of small images remain in the background, providing a quiet visual humming or buzzing amidst the more robust components of the work. Even in the most recent work, “The Beautyful Ones” Series #11 (2023), where the grid of imagery is left far more exposed, it still turns inward toward, possibly, memories of the artist that can never be transmitted to anyone else. Instead, it is the direct gaze of the young protagonist that, not surprisingly, brings the outside world (us) to the world. But, very surprisingly, it is an emphatically flat shape of the profile of a chair that has been painted and positioned like a barrier against the formal picture plane of the paper that propels the work into unexpected, and I would say refreshing, territory.
That last observation is the main reason why I think Akunyili Crosby’s work already has what it takes to resist the undertow of far less developed figuration that has captivated so many. It’s the simple stuff, really. This is not meant as a dismissal of the compelling intricacies that are meticulously painted into the scenes depicted in it: for example, two works from the same series (Dwellers: Native One  and Dwellers: Cosmopolitan Ones ) that overlap (rather than merely juxtapose) the ornamental capabilities of nature to the point of abstraction, but abstract in the way letterforms relate to language. (As the pre-problematic Morrissey once sang: “Nature is a language, can’t you read?”) The fact that Akunyili Crosby uses specific plants as source materials grounds her use of terms like “native” and “cosmopolitan” in her titles, setting the stage for the pictorial interweaving that transports their complexities beyond classification.
Returning to the simple, in the end I find myself assessing one work as the strongest in the exhibition. Blend in – Stand Out (2019), it could be argued, is the least intertwined work in the gallery. A woman (the artist) leans from behind over a man (her husband) sitting in a chair and has wrapped her arms around his shoulders. Their faces are not shown. They are in a room with teal-green walls and a peach-orange floor (all painted flat with no modulation). Every object in the room is self-contained: chairs, a table, a vase containing flowers, a rug, and a window. Even though the objects are in-filled with the photographic transfers, only the rug is given over to them completely. All the other things can be seen and taken for what they are. (Although it wouldn’t be a work of hers if there weren’t the restrained yet impactful play between the plants in the vase and those “outside” through the window.)
It is the most unique aspect of this major work that brings its simplicity home: it depicts the scene as larger-than-life, and just enough. The rounded back of the female figure nearly touches the top edge of the paper; this corner of a room takes up all of the space of the painting. Blend in – Stand Out reminds us that scale remains one of the best ways to create a most lasting form of projection.