Only an artist with a keen eye, a well-trained hand and steady nerves would take on the cross-cultural maelstrom that is the African diaspora today. That would be Njideka Akunyili, five of whose sumptuous paintings are featured in a must-see show at Franklin Art Works through July 27.
The Minneapolis gallery has again scored a major coup in bringing this savvy artist to the Twin Cities for her first solo exhibit. This is the kind of talent-spotting that local museums should be doing but rarely have the resources or moxie to deliver.
The Nigerian-born, Brooklyn-based artist is a fast-rising star on the international scene. Just 30, she earned an MFA degree at Yale University in 2011 and immediately stepped onto a bright stage. She moved into a prestigious residency that year at the Studio Museum in Harlem followed by five 2012 shows in New York and one at the Museum of New Art in Detroit.
Last year at Art Basel Switzerland, the art world’s primo show-and-sell mosh pit, five of her monumental collages sold in just 30 minutes. Given the art world’s proclivity for hype, skeptics may be wary of so much sizzle, but the Franklin show suggests that Akunyili has the smarts to go the distance.
Her paintings, up to 10 feet tall and more than 7 feet wide, are visually engrossing scenes that often include the artist’s family or friends — dancing in a club, talking or embracing on a bed, hanging out with the kids. Ornamental grilles screen some of the figures, preserving privacy and a sense of mystery. The grilles and other visual devices — crisp edges, blocks and wedges of color, shadowed faces — introduce graphic punch and an appealing, posterish verve that is eloquently indebted to the work of the great African-American painter Romare Bearden.
And Akunyili’s Nigerian past? That appears as a rose-tinted collage of colonial-era stamps (Queen Victoria, King George V) and newspaper imagery of Nigerian leaders, pop culture stars, fashionistas and headlines (“Enough Is Enough, Let the Suffering Stop”). The collage spills across a wall, covers the floor and imprints a man’s shirt in her most obviously autobiographical piece, “5 Umbezi Street, New Haven, Enugu,” whose title alludes to Akunyili’s birth in Enugu, Nigeria, and education in New Haven, Conn. Elsewhere it links an interracial couple, tattoos an arm, covers a bed.
While avoiding confessional intimacies, Akunyili manages simultaneously to tell her story and to sketch a larger picture of emigration, dislocation and what she has called the “contradictory loyalties” in her love for Nigeria and her appreciation of Western culture.
McKnight artists at MCAD
Four winners of McKnight Visual Artist Fellowships report on their 2012-13 work in an attractively minimalist show on view through July 14. Each received $25,000 from McKnight to pursue whatever aesthetic path they wished.
Sculptor Chris Larson documented in moody black-and-white photos a famous Marcel Breuer-designed house that he re-created this spring in wood and cardboard and then burned. The 11 show photos record the cardboard house in Larson’s studio, the pictures nicely capturing its austere geometries and quixotic vistas of stuff stored around it.
Ruben Nusz produced a half-dozen meticulous little paintings, each about 12 inches tall by 18 inches wide, to illustrate and test color theories. Three of the paintings juxtapose squares of bold primary colors (red, green, orange) with monochrome grids in gray, while the other three have squares of olive, lime, aqua and so on. All are edged in contrasting colors and displayed on walls painted in wide vertical stripes of color spectrum hues. The effect is jazzy and visually riveting, but whether it meets its Taoist/Zen/algorithmic/figure/ground aspiration is anybody’s guess.
Jim Denomie continues to satirize art history, stoic Indians and domestic life in boldly colored faux-naive paintings. His centerpiece is a huge vertical diptych, complete with a viewing platform, in which inspirational bits by Botticelli, Michelangelo, Tom Wesselman, Salvador Dali and other big name honchos float around Van Gogh in a boxing ring. Below that creative heaven, mere mortal artists struggle for inspiration.
Printmaker and graphic designer Natasha Pestich delivers the most intriguing project, a perfectly executed series of posters, news reports and memorabilia that purportedly document an unrealized art project designed by three students at a fictive Illinois college. According to her tale, the kids were accidentally trapped for six days in their project, hence the news stories and survivalist notes. It’s a clever concept that smartly demonstrates Pestich’s design skills and intellectual prowess.