Awol Erizku, New Flower/Images of the Reclining Venus @FLAG Art Foundation

JTF (just the facts): A total of 13 large scale color photographs, framed in custom color-matched frames and unmatted, and hung against red and light blue walls in the North and South galleries, the office area, and the elevator lobby on the 10th floor. All of the works are digital chromatic prints, made in 2013. The prints are each sized 40×50, and are available in in editions of 3. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: When we look back across the long sweep of centuries of art history, the reclining nude holds a central position in the depiction of female sensuality. While other positions and poses might better evoke fertility, power, or purity, the lying down nude, often surrounded by symbols of luxury (pillows, silky fabrics, hanging tapestries, lush interiors etc.), seems deliberately composed to evoke desire.

In its early forms, the subject of these artworks (mostly paintings) was usually Venus/Aphrodite, the goddess of love, sex, and beauty; Titian’s Venus of Urbino and Velázquez’ Rokeby Venus both use the reclining nude as a compositional form, experimenting with front and back (with mirror) views. In later times, the subject was stripped of some of its mythical air, becoming more overtly human; Goya’s La Maja Desnuda with her bold stare and exposed public hair was perhaps the most controversial of these interpretations, and both Ingres’s La Grand Odalisque and Manet’s Olympia extended that idea further, finding desire in the rich boudoirs of courtesans and prostitutes. But in all these cases, the sitter was uniformly a white-skinned woman – while there are black attendants/slaves here and there in the shadows, there are few if any dark-skinned odalisques lounging languidly in these works.

Awol Erizku’s recent series New Flower seeks to rectify that imbalanced situation, forcing us to think about how these art historical tropes and references can be reconsidered in a more modern context. Using actual Addis Ababa sex workers as his subjects, Erizku has smartly reinterpreted the reclining female nude, placing his sitters in the bare-bones settings of tired hotel rooms with few furnishings aside from the bed. While Mickalene Thomas reclaimed the form (in both painting and photography) with a more feminist stance, using couches draped in patterned African prints and black models armed with ample afros and confident poses, Erizku’s images have been pared back to a more muted, pedestrian essence, and the beauty to be found in his pictures comes not from traditional evocative opulence, but from its opposite. His sitters shine in nuanced contrast to the meager surroundings and the hard reality of their circumstances, from a sense of unguarded inner strength revealed in some of their facial expressions and in the unadorned elegance of some of their nude bodies.

While Erizku’s compositions have very few component parts – a bed, a model, and a painted wall, with a chair, a bedside table, a curtain, or a small picture of Jesus as the main decorative features – he has been consistently able to evoke the genre’s central sensuality. Patterned sheets and bright primary colors often act as a stand-in for the luxurious satins that have enriched other boudoirs, and in one case, a bouquet of roses (left to wilt in this case) is a direct homage to Manet. But chipped paint, electrical outlets, worn bedframes, and a few blank, wary, and vacant stares quietly undermine any sense of voluptuous glamour, adding a blast of transactional dissonance to the vibrant formal echo.

And while I wasn’t paying attention to it immediately, there is also a subtle audio component to this show. As I circled the galleries, Drake’s catchy earworm Hotline Bling (part of a larger mixtape of words and music selected by Erizku) was playing over the speakers, his “good girl” lines (a mix of wistfulness, jealousy, and shaming) adding a coincidental layer of darkness to my experience the pictures. It brought home the whole reality of the roles, expectations, and choices these women face with surprising force.

Like Kehinde Wiley and his regal old master-style paintings of contemporary black men and women, Erizku is doing some clever art historical substitution here, re-envisioning an established genre though an alternate cultural lens. In updating an anachronistic form, Erizku has been able to leverage its traditional resonances and then actively reposition them into a different frame of reference. When the pieces all come into alignment, the best of these photographs finds a balance between classical lyricism and modern reality that gives them a fiery hard-hitting vibrancy.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum-like space, there are of course no posted prices. Erizku was represented by Hasted Kraeutler Gallery, but with the recent demise of that space, his New York representation is less clear. Ben Brown Fine Art (from Hong Kong here) was recently showing this series at Paris Photo. His work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Loose Joints (here). Clothbound embossed hardcover, 25×32 cm, 132 pages, with 60 color plates. Includes texts by Lucy Ives, Orit Gat, and ... Read on.

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