Sam Jablon & Odili Donald Odita

Morgan Presents
155 Suffolk Street
New York
Lower East Side
Sep 23rd 2021 — Nov 2nd 2021

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“Winter in Ohio was especially rough if you had an appetite for color,” Toni Morrison wrote in her classic text Beloved. “Sky provided the only drama.” The Nigeria-born, Ohio-reared artist Odili Donald Odita might seem to agree, contributing a pair of sublime canvases depicting abstract, sharp-edged skeins of striated sky, sand, water, and shadow to this exhibition inaugurating the new gallery Morgan Presents, which focuses exclusively on dual-artist shows. With hand-mixed palettes of bluish slate, dull orange, and pale yellows, Odita’s abstract landscapes are anything but still, recalling breaking dawns and other forms of transition.

Odita’s work is paired with Samuel Jablon’s text-based paintings. The exhibition’s title, “Color/Code,” is a salient way to order the two: Odita’s stunningly idiosyncratic patchworks recall sources ranging from Nigerian textile to art historical landscapes to wallpaper, while Jablon’s visual poems require a decrypting of textual cues. Both artists’ works are colorful, restless and large-scale, but Jablon’s work out numbers Odita’s more than two-to-one, making the pairing feel uneven. In the front room, the gallery arranged two of Odita’s paintings—Power Line (2003) and Descent (2001)—in dialogue with three of Jablon’s—EMIT TIME, BAD BAD BAD, NO BAD DAYS (all 2021). Three more of Jablon’s works were exhibited in the back viewing room on the day I visited, giving the overall presentation an unbalanced feel.

Made during quarantine, Jablon’s canvases have been pared to a set selection of textual phrases (“DON’T PANIC”), descriptions both hopeful and banal (“NOTHING BAD HAPPENS”), or stultifying expressions of frustration (“FUCK”). Words, here, are ineffectual when they aren’t actively obfuscating—indeed, in many canvases, they are written backwards or overlapping, nearly defying legibility.  

In the time of pandemic, this is a notable, even ascetic, act that mirrors the viewer’s experience of them. One contemplates the number of ways the letters F, U, C, K can touch or intersect; examines the brushstrokes that background, obscure or form letters; and engages the mental exercise of reverting legible letters to pure shapes and lines. Fondness for the works grows with repetition, an experience not incomparable to the grinding down of faculties many of us is experienced during lockdown itself. Maybe if I read these phrases enough times, I’ll start to believe them—more likely, the mantra “NO BAD DAYS” is etched and re-etched so thickly with a palpable anxiety that it begins to suggest what it purports to deny. —Lisa Yin Zhang

Sam Jablon, NO BAD DAYS, 2021. Oil and acrylic on canvas 90 x 80 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Morgan Presents