Abe Odedina’s Warm Leatherette is an uncanny tableau, familiar and alien at once. On its surface – and when it comes to painting, what else is there? – we observe a girl. Sofa. Table, LP. A bottle, and two glasses.
These signifiers are eminently legible, not least for art historians; the trope of young-woman-supine, for instance, is as entrenched in classical painting as any subject. ‘It speaks to tradition’, says the artist, but also ‘underlines the fundamental nature of waiting’. However tempted we might be to project, say, the Urbino Venus onto Odedina’s subject, its primary pulse is universal. ‘Let’s be absolutely blunt about this. Something about a tryst, about an encounter someone’s waiting for – whether that’s her or the observer – there’s a longing.’
For the artist, any nod to classicism is a playful one: ‘the real power of objects is that we invest our lives in them. It’s not the material value – it’s the cultural value, which we always have invested in these objects.’ Riffing on the dense layering of coded message in symbolist painting, Odedina rather grounds his references in the here and now – ‘it’s important that you can make sense of [my symbols] yourself’ – while harking back to the visual language’s heritage. In the melding of varied cues and reference points, Odedina’s paintings undertake their deftest strokes, layering inferences and encircling their audience in diverse implications. What else is meaning made of?
Take the painting’s protagonist. On the one hand, her languid proneness calls no end of instantly recognisable associations to mind. Intuitively intelligible, themes of sex, power, ambiguity and opportunity unfurl beneath our eyes. On the other, she undermines her own availability. A dash of ‘domestic menace’ joins the chorus in a pair of shears (or are they scissors?), almost ritually placed on the coffee table in front of her. Dependant on notional human hands to activate their threat, a perturbing question is posed. If she’s been waiting for you, what’s she planning to do now that you’ve arrived?
‘The leatherette sofa might be where you were hoping to have an encounter.’ Then again, that hope might well be dashed. If a painting has desires, then the consequences of Warm Leatherette’s hover somewhere between romance and castration; unease and promised pleasure in equal measure. Such is life, rich with opportunity to misread signs and commit lesser or greater missteps. ‘My paintings have always been about the point of impact of life, the point at which life hits you’, explains Odedina. That thwack can come from myriad directions; if ‘life trumps art’, according to the artist, it nonetheless reflects experience while generating it – an essentially human symbiosis. Besides the scissors, a record player: ‘music is always so evocative’. Fitting, then, that the painting’s title comes from a Grace Jones song.
Lifting inspiration in turn, from J G Ballard’s infamous Crash, Jones’ Warm Leatherette holds appropriately dense strata of significance for the artist. Drifting into Odedina’s formidable stable of recurring Graces, Jones joins the Amazings and the Classicals; as he notes, ‘I’ll equally paint a man or woman to represent my experience’. While for Odedina (and much of his generation besides) the song was part of early adulthood’s soundtrack, its real anchor is buried deeper still. ‘The Grace Jones version was released in 1980, but the primary memories evoked aren’t from the 1980s [for me]. What those words – ‘warm leatherette’ – do, is take me back to even earlier memories. The scene of so many childhood and teenage dramas were the leatherette sofas we had in most Nigerian houses.
‘[On those sofas] you were always waiting for something. I have memories of my mother sitting down and us dancing to entertain her. It becomes like a theatre.’ In Warm Leatherette, then, the convergence of seen and seer is compounded by the subject’s steady outward gaze, projecting herself into our world while pulling us into hers. Despite remaining the painting’s primary focus, her perch on that fabled leatherette seat casts her into the sphere of audience rather than – or as well as – actor. ‘She’s looking at us. What is the drama? That’s never decided.’ And what does that make the viewer – watching, or watched?
For his part, Odedina’s as interested to speculate as any of us. Noting of his process ‘I observe the story developing’, the artist is characteristically resistant to the idea that his Warm Leatherette depicts anything fixed enough to be interpreted rightly or wrongly. On the contrary, ‘I like the idea of trying to distil poetry from the rational’, he says – and there’s less to separate the two than we might imagine. Subject and object, tryst and terror, fact and fiction; these categories exist largely in name only. ‘In reality, it’s a lot more tremulous [than we’d like to think].’
By Emily Watkins
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