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EARLIER THIS MONTH, Toyin Odutola spoke to BOMB magazine about race, representation and inspiration. The Nigerian-born artist’s work is instantly recognizable. Executed in charcoal, ink and often ballpoint pen, her self portraits and images of her brothers and others are usually set against dark backgrounds, the subject’s skin depicted in black hues defined by pattern, texture and mark making. The approach is about both aesthetics and identity.

Odutola earned her bachelors degree from the University of Alabama at Huntsville and has an MFA from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Her exhibition, “Toyin Odutola: Untold Stories,” is on view through Feb. 28 at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. (The images in this post feature works and installation views from the exhibition.)

For Bomb, Ashley Stull, an independent curator and professor, spoke to Odutola about moving from California to New York, where she now lives and works. “I never would have imagined I’d end up in New York. The concept seemed beyond me, because when you claim that address there is something very official about it, like ‘I’m a professional now,'” Odutola says.

 

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TOYIN ODUTOLA, “The Uncertainty Principle,” 2014 (charcoal, pastel, marker, and graphite on paper). | © Toyin Odutola. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

 

Among other topics, the conversation covered why the artist uses a common writing implement to produce some of her finest work and the artists who have most influenced her practice:

STULL: How did you arrive at ballpoint pen? It communicates dark tones beautifully, but what works about it so differently from other materials—like charcoal? I know you also work in charcoal and marker, but pen seems born out of something interesting I hope you can unpack.

ODUTOLA: I came to ballpoint pen with a need to render how skin felt like to me. It’s a tool that seems to translate more empathetically what I was trying to portray… skin as a striated terrain, and in a broader sense, the concept of a portrait as a platform for creating a sense of place. The sheen is the key. When I press the pen into the surface of paper, board or wood, a sort of engraving is taking place, akin to the process of printmaking. The magic of viscous fluid is that the darkest areas, the relief-like marks, also become the lightest areas by simply changing one’s point of view. Light and shadow play are what make the pen and ink interactive. I have worked with graphite and charcoal and all are successful in their own way, but there is something very singular about the viewing process of pen ink that sets it apart from the others.

It’s incredibly inspiring conceptually, and over time the ballpoint pen has been the driving force for a number of explorations. — Bomb magazine

“I came to ballpoint pen with a need to render how skin felt like to me. It’s a tool that seems to translate more empathetically what I was trying to portray… skin as a striated terrain, and in a broader sense, the concept of a portrait as a platform for creating a sense of place.” — Toyin Odutola, Bomb magazine

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TOYIN ODUTOLA, “What You Think You See,” 2014 (charcoal, pastel, marker, and graphite on paper). | © Toyin Odutola. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

 

STULL: Can you speak about your influences? I know you have a relationship to artists like Hank Willis Thomas and Kerry James Marshall. In what ways do your influences play into your work, and do you imagine any collaborations in the future?

ODUTOLA: Marshall had a huge influence on me when I was first introduced to him. Every time I see his works, I am always inspired to try different things, different forms, and ways of playing with the surface. Another artist’s work I’ve been really influenced by lately is Lynette Yiadom-Boakye; the way she uses muted palettes and strong accent colors always astounds me. I’m constantly looking for inspiration, to try out different techniques. Influences are great motivators, for they allow you to contemplate processes that may seem far removed from your methodology, but challenge your assumptions about what your work can do, what your work can mean. In terms of collaboration, I am more open to that now than I was a few years ago. I’ve always wanted to create a comic book, and I often look to artists like Robert Pruitt who work masterfully with that medium. I would love to collaborate with him, if possible. But, if I had an all-time dream collaboration it would be with the manga artist, Takehiko Inoue. Chancing upon his work was one of the defining moments for me as a teenager. Reading the “Vagabond” series made me want to be an artist. — Bomb magazine

 

The work of Odutola, Marshall and Yiadom-Boakye may differ greatly in terms of aesthetic approach and materials, but the artists share significant common elements. In addition to being represented by the same New York dealer, Jack Shainman, all three recognize the impact of color. Each has an intellectual and political commitment to portraying black subjects with dark skin—literally black in cases of Marshall and Odutola. This practice is complemented by an innate sense of the power of juxtaposition—pairing dark hues with carefully chosen color for maximum emotional, narrative and visual effect.CT

 

TOP IMAGE: Installation view of “Toyin Odutola: Untold Stories” at Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) St. Louis. From left, | Courtesy CAM

 

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TOYIN ODUTOLA, “What She Saw,” 2014 (charcoal, pastel, marker, and graphite on paper). | © Toyin Odutola. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

 

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Installation view of “Toyin Odutola: Untold Stories” at Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) St. Louis | Courtesy CAM

 

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TOYIN ODUTOLA, Detail of “He Just Was,” 2014 (diptych: charcoal, pastel, marker,and graphite on paper). | © Toyin Odutola. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

 

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TOYIN ODUTOLA, “He Just Was,” 2014 (diptych: charcoal, pastel, marker, and graphite on paper). | © Toyin Odutola. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

 

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TOYIN ODUTOLA, Detail of “He Just Was,” 2014 (diptych: charcoal, pastel, marker,and graphite on paper). | © Toyin Odutola. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

 

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Installation view of “Toyin Odutola: Untold Stories” at Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) St. Louis | Courtesy CAM

 

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TOYIN ODUTOLA, “The Last One,” 2014 (charcoal, pastel, marker, and graphite on paper). | © Toyin Odutola. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

 

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