Toyin Odutola and I were planning her project for the museum’s Artists Drawing Club since last October, but we did not meet in person until the day before her event last week. Toyin graduated from the MFA program at California College of the Arts in May 2012 and moved to New York City this spring. All of our planning for this program took place over the phone, which might have been difficult if not for Toyin’s use of social media to document her art practice, an extremely helpful way to convey and understand her process. It almost felt like I was in her studio. This sensation of close connection through social media might seem like a novel and trendy idea, especially considering that she was featured in an ARTnews article, “What I Like About You: Artists to Follow on Instagram.” That type of documentation can provide practical, important information as well as reach a broad audience for her work.
During our initial talks, Toyin was really excited about a recent shift in the colors she uses in her drawings. Her new works featured a more subdued and restrained palette. We talked about how this change might be a great wayto view the museum’s collection through the formal lens of color. Ideas continued to develop after each talk and culminated in her project Rendition. While other projects in the Artists Drawing Club emphasized deliberate, face-to-face interaction between audience and artist, this project derived inspiration from Toyin’s social media practice to facilitate exchange. Using the hashtag #colormatch on Instagram and Twitter, she followed the stream of participant photos that were posted from the galleries when visitors matched the color of artworks to the swatches provided by Toyin. When she saw something of particular interest she included an element or motif from the object into the portrait she drew onsite. Along the way she shared progress online.
I interviewed Toyin right before her event.
Marc Mayer (MM): I learned that you use ballpoint pens in your drawings when I started to follow you on Instagram. You were on a flight and took pictures of a portrait in progress, which I loved seeing. Making work on an airplane made me very curious about the materials you use. What materials are you drawn to and why?
Toyin Odutola (TO): I am really drawn to ballpoint pens. The ballpoint pen is primarily seen as a writing tool, but the use of the ballpoint pen as an art material has existed since the 1950s, possibly earlier. I am drawn to pen ink for its duality, how blacks and whites are captured by the ink, how the pen is both a writing tool and an art material. It’s accessible and ubiquitous. The more layered the ink, especially if you cake it on, the more you can see the heavy dark and great light qualities of its materiality. It renders the concept of a black/white binary almost null. The ink embodies both qualities because of the nature of the viscous fluid. The ink also creates a sense of subtlety and immediacy, perfect for drawing. I’ve always been prone to drawing more than any other mode of creating. I sometimes paint, but it’s only been to support my drawing. I am attracted to materials that facilitate drawing and make its sense of immediacy. Pencils, pens, markers—these are my main tools. Sometimes I use acrylic ink and watercolors, but it all boils down to what helps the process of drawing move along smoothly and allows the ideas to flow.
MM: I am very interested in your presence on social media. How would you describe your use/practice of social media? How does it support and influence the way you work?
TO: The first introduction of my work to an audience came from interactions on social media. Concurrently, it was through the Internet and social media that I was first exposed to contemporary art and, in some way, the art world at large. I was inspired and heavily influenced by a number of burgeoning illustrators and comic-book artists who openly shared their work process. It was prior to the advent of official online tools like Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram, and it involved artists of all manner of mediums, varying fields and experience, taking process shots of their works and writing about their methodology in a very open way. Needless to say, it was a major part of my art education at the time. Through these various artists’ process blogs, I learned about materials, lighting, color—you name it, all from and the dialogues these posts generated.
I started my Tumblr blog around 2009, when I wasn’t sure if I still wanted to pursue art making. It became a space for me to explore artistic methods, theory and materials. I also used my blog as a catalog of how I felt while working. Initially, the blog was only viewed by me. I hardly had any followers and, honestly, that wasn’t my aim in the beginning. Soon, other artists, writers and designers began commenting on my posts. They would ask questions about what I was making, why I was making such work, and why I was using these materials –all questions I hadn’t really asked myself. The best interactions were getting recommendations to look at other artists I had not known, and artistic movements I had not yet studied. From that dialogue my work began to progress, and my independent art education blossomed. By the end of 2009 I was convinced I wanted to be an artist. It inspired me to apply for graduate school.
One could say I should thank the Internet for helping me get on the track I’m on today.
Today there are many more people viewing my work on social media. The response has really blown me away and often I am confronted with questions about why I share so much about my studio work online. In my mind, it is no different from the illustrator and comic-book artist blogs that inspired me. Maybe the difference is the art world, and that artists aren’t always comfortable or encouraged to share so much of their process, which is a shame. Maybe there is a flipside of sharing too much, where people give you direction on work instead of talking about ideas, which can be disconcerting. I am more interested in a constructive critique, friendly suggestions and, in some rare cases, collaboration.
Social media is a tool to connect to a different audience. I’m thinking of that kid, like myself not too long ago, who doesn’t have access to galleries or museums or studios; giving her/him a chance to see the day-to-day drudge of it all. To show people that, in the end, it’s all about the work. It’s not all glamorous, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important, meaningful and educational.
MM: I am curious if you think of your work as portraiture? Do any elements in your work challenge traditional portraiture? Does the concept of portraiture have any interest for you?
TO: I don’t mind being labeled as a portraitist; however, like everything that goes on in my studio, I’m not beholden to the practice. I admire portraiture and it is the main platform I use to create my works, but to limit my work to just creating portraits isn’t the case either. I admit, I am drawn to many artists who took more ownership of the term, such as John Singer Sargent, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Hans Holbein the Younger. But there are other artists who have used the parameters of portraiture beyond its initial purpose, such as Charles White, Kerry James Marshall, Alex Katz and Chuck Close.
I use portrait for conceptual means. I like some of the restrictions of portraiture. It’s a very basic premise. You are capturing the essence of a person at a certain time and place, but from there you can manipulate any of these elements and still constitute a portrait. I want to create spaces where things aren’t so concrete, spaces that aren’t so certain. The more you try to pin a feeling of a person down, it slips, no? I try my best to pin down that essence, which is crazy. How can you pin down something so abstract visually? You can try to capture it with color or various lines, but I know that part of a person is invention; part of what makes up an individual cannot be represented. That’s why I love portraiture.
We are living in a time when there is a plethora of ways and forms of portraiture. I like to carve out my own niche and create works that are distinctive, but also heavily entrenched in our contemporary moment. The fact that there are many ways of creating a portrait makes me more inclined to restrict the format: to decontenxualize the space surrounding a subject; to enhance the focus and emphasize a feature (skin, eyes, hair); to help the viewer to pay attention more intimately. I have been developing this focus of these portraits since 2009 and will continue to work on this a little longer. But what the future holds for me in portraiture is uncertain.
MM: You have mentioned that skin is really important in your work. What draws you to skin? Why do you find it so compelling?
TO: Skin is important because it is the singular feature where I can express the varying rhythms and lines that convey meaning or even poignancy. When it comes to how I draw skin, it may be the primary subject of the work, but what I hope is that skin becomes a gateway to how to read a person’s subjectivity. This has political implications related to the way people justify prejudice based on skin color. I want to invert this process and create a more positive and thoughtful outcome. I want to change people’s perception of skin, from seeing only the stereotype to seeing a fully formed, complex individual. Skin can be a vehicle to change ones perception, but that isn’t the end result of my work in and of itself.
MM: Do you listen to music while you work? What are three songs, artists or albums you are currently listening to?
TO: Yes, but it’s more of a tossup between music and movies. I love watching documentaries while working, which really means I love listening to them. Podcasts and audiobooks are great for my process. I get the visual experience through my drawing, so the experience of listening to great conversations and stories is ideal. Sometimes certain excerpts or random texts find their way into the titles of the drawings.
Right now, I’m obsessed with the band Inc., particularly their song “5 Days,” which has been on repeat in my studio. Also, two SOHN’s songs: “The Wheel” and “Bloodflows.” As for a third, I guess that would be the Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around.” It’s one of my all-time favorites. Generally, I listen to just about anything that comes on shuffle from my computer. Lately, it’s been electronic music for some reason.
MM: You mentioned that Asian art has influenced you and your work. What is your interest in the Asian Art Museum and Asian culture?
TO: I’ve visited the Asian Art Museum while living in San Francisco, and I enjoyed the collection and its diversity and saw some very interesting exhibitions. I like that you always find something new or different whenever you visit. I also love that James Jean is a part of the collection. I am a HUGE fan of his work. As for Asian cultural and aesthetic influences, I have been fascinated with Japanese art history, especially printmaking, and, I’ll admit it, manga and anime culture have interested me since I was a kid. As an undergraduate in Alabama I obsessed over Chinese literati works and posters from the 1950s and ’60s.
The irony is, whenever I get asked about my influences for art, I have to say manga. I wasn’t one of those kids who knew at the age of five that I wanted to be an artist. I didn’t have that sort of precocious insight. I was like any other kid, just going through the motions. I didn’t even think of myself as an artist until I was about to graduate high school and start university. I read comics voraciously when I was young. I loved that the illustrative platform allowed and inspired a variety of ways to express narrative. The graphic nature of the work is what fascinated me most. Artists such as Takehiko Inoue, for instance, really influenced how I looked at art and what I enjoyed: sumptuous detail and pattern language; various ways of enhancing thick, rich blacks, and the infinite ways in which one could express a moment in a face or individual features, such as the eyes. I guess you could say that’s where it all started for me. Manga and anime continue to influence me.
MM: What is the project you are working on for the Artists Drawing Club?
TO: The project is Rendition, a collaboration between you and me. We’ve been discussing it for about a year now, and it came from this idea of incorporating the Asian Art Museum’s collection into a project. I was excited about creating a work that had some connection to the works on view. I had begun working with a more polychromatic palette only recently, and it was interesting to think about this change. I also work in a very controlled manner, so the possibility of creating a work in a site-specific way intrigued me.
I like the notion of having the color palette influence the potential of a work. Normally, when I set out to create a drawing, I lay out which colors I wish to enhance and explore. For Rendition, we looked at features in the museum’s collection and narrowed the colors down to five. From there the project takes a sort of interactive turn. We wanted to include the audience, and although the idea of drawing on site is different from my studio method, you suggested taking the experience a step further: having the audience go through the collection and find the colors in the works, all while I draw the portrait on site, cataloging the colors found via social media. Of course, I would like to finish the work in the time slot of the same day, so I will be working on the piece a little ahead of the scheduled event, but I will be keeping track of the logs while I am working.
What excited me the most (and sort of terrified me) was the idea of having this entire thing documented with a live video projection. This gives the audience a chance to see my method in person, in real time, something which I tend to do mainly through social media platforms, i.e. my blog and Instagram. It gives the audience a chance to see the evolution of a work, and it bridges the gap between the studio and exhibition. I look forward to it all. I just hope I don’t make too much of a mess of it. Right now, I am still planning which portrait to draw. I have a few sketches laid out. I suppose it won’t be revealed until the event takes place.