What's on Los Angeles | Index

by Jody Zellen

July 13, 2023

Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Coming Back to See Through, Again
David Zwirner Los Angeles
May 23 - July 29, 2023

Njideka Akunyili Crosby

During a visit to Victoria Miro Gallery in 2013, I happened upon pieces by Njideka Akunyili Crosby in the group exhibition Cinematic Visions, Paintings at the Edge of Reality. It was my first encounter with her work and I was blown away. They were unlike anything I had seen and they resonated both for their straight forward representations of Black life and their inventive use of photo-transfers combined with drawn lines and painting. Who was this artists from Los Angeles showing in London that I had never heard of? Ten years later, I have had numerous opportunities to see Akunyili Crosby's works and I remain in awe of her skill and the beauty of her works: now more nuanced and sophisticated.

In her first exhibition at David Zwirner's new Los Angeles gallery, she presents a selection of multi-layered works on paper that juxtapose photographic transfers and painted depictions of interiors and exteriors some with, but many without people. Poetically titled Coming Back to See Through, Again, collectively and individually, these large-scale works on paper suggest a range of periods of time, as well as the possibilities of different worlds, glimpsed through windows and doorways.

Blend in - Stand out (2019) is a large scale work that spans 95 x 123 inches. The image depicts an interior setting, but true to form, Akunyili Crosby simply suggests the room, with walls and floor presented as flat solid colors. Within this closely cropped space are two figures —-a woman hugging a man-— seen from the side, four chairs, a rug and a table with a plant on it. An abstract painting of plants, similar to the flowers in a pot on the table, as well as other paintings in the gallery, hangs on the wall. Akunyili Crosby's blend of painting and collage is evident in this work with the beautifully collaged elements creating an interesting contrast to the painted areas. While aspects of the background —walls and flowers, the seated man's arm, white T-shirt, sneakers and green trousers, as well as the woman's hand and legs— are painted, almost everything else is carefuly constructed or overlaid with collaged (transferred) elements that come from both personal and historical sources. Akunyili Crosby's use of collage infuses her works with a sense of history that implies a continuum from then to now and helps to define her characters.

Like Blend in - Stand out, the painting Still You Bloom in This Land of No Gardens (2021) is a self portrait. Akunyili Crosby sits on a chair with her young child on her knee outside her home surrounded by vegetation. The interior of the home is visible through an open door. The work is a layered composition juxtaposing flatly painted areas with painted patterns and collages made from photographic transfers. Seen both in front of and behind them, the mingling of plant life, patterns and photographic montage both obscure and concretize the figures. Akunyili Crosby draws from her childhood in Nigeria, the African diaspora and notions of displacement and identity to weave together narrative paintings that are at once personal and universal. That the child wears a T-shirt that reads "Black is Beautiful" is visually subtle, yet politically specific.

Interspersed with the figurative images are works that foreground nature. At first glance, pieces like Dwellers: Cosmopolitan Ones (2022), Persistence of Vision: Screen Walls & Fruit Tree (2022) and Potential, Displaced (2021) appear to be images of dense vegetation and architectural details in both solid tones and Akunyili Crosby's patterns of transfers. She is interested in the origins and migrations of plants (as well as people), their cultural and historical associations and has done extensive research on plant-life in both Los Angeles and Nigeria. The green-hued leaves on a tree positioned at the bottom of the composition in front of a light-tan screen/wall that dominates Persistence of Vision: Screen Walls & Fruit Tree are in fact green painted transfers culled from photographs and magazine pages. While seemingly an image of the type of residences built in Nigeria in the 70s and 80s, Akunyili Crosby connects it to those who inhabited the area.

Akunyili Crosby's layered works can be seen on numerous levels. From afar, they are exteriors, portraits and landscapes that explore issues of family and nature. Upon closer examination, they become encyclopedic adventures that integrate past and present, Los Angeles and Nigeria, paint and photographic transfer, abstraction and collage to become evocative, seductive, engaging artworks that reveal more and more the longer they are observed.