Magazine article Artforum International

Chris Ofili: New Museum, New York

Magazine article Artforum International

Chris Ofili: New Museum, New York

Article excerpt

CHRIS OFILI is one of a tiny handful of living artists whose work has, however briefly, entered what passes in this country for "political discourse." In the more than fifteen years since the tempest in a teapot initiated by Rudolph Giuliani's "outrage" at the inclusion of Ofili's painting The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996, in the 1999 exhibition "Sensation" at the Brooklyn Museum, no other artist has been framed for such blasphemy. Meanwhile, Ofili's approach to painting and his philosophical agenda have been quietly evolving, encompassing both more personal and more historical areas of association. "Chris Ofili: Night and Day" at the New Museum laid out the artist's case, making clear how ill-suited this thoughtful and adventurous artist was to the role of social iconoclast, the status-quo-disturbing aspects of his work notwithstanding.

Ofili and the curators faced honestly the awkwardness of the museum's galleries for the display of a continuous chronological survey, and on three floors they installed three distinct, and environmentally specific, presentations of paintings from different periods and groups, with smaller side galleries devoted to drawings and a few sculptures scattered throughout. (If one has any complaints about this approach, they concern the treatment of these last categories, which in this context came off more as "projects" than as integral aspects of Ofili's larger train of thought. He clearly has a contribution to make as a sculptor, and drawing may be deeply braided into his method of developing painting ideas, but neither of those arguments was made here.)

The earliest material, installed on the second floor of the museum, gave an overview of the period when Ofili's work began to be widely seen, beginning in the mid-1990s and ending with a thematically linked series of paintings from the early 2000s. Together these groups constitute the "elephant dung period" of Ofili's work, which was so distressing to "America's mayor." Pictorially, the works buzz like neon signs, and materially, they evince an exoticism and an intensity that extend far beyond the offending ordure. The artist's inspirations and affinities at the time encompassed European and non-Western art history, modernism and folk art, so-called fine art and so-called craft, religious art and comic books, archaic African sculpture and rap culture, all of which echo in the spirit of these paintings. The dung balls, hard dry things about the size of a grapefruit that are purportedly considered sacred in cultures that traditionally worship elephants, function as literal feet for the paintings (much the way artists in their studios frequently lean paintings against the wall propped on bricks or empty paint cans) and are also attached to the surfaces (sparely) in various relationships to the overall pictorial structure. Usually they have words written on them. The images themselves are built of layers of poured resin, paint, glitter, pointillist dots, drawings, collaged patterns of cutout body parts from porn magazines, and of course the dung. Most of the paintings are composed around large, graphically legible central characters and are as interesting to look at from across the room as they are at close range.

Ofili's work at this time raised questions about maleness, blackness, lust, and virility, and, by extension, about archetypes of femaleness and the graphics of strength and power--all with an almost lurid enthusiasm for the possibilities available to painting. The mesmerizing series of red, green, and black paintings on African themes from the early 2000s shifted things to a different key, darker and richer, much less rambunctious, and deeply romantic. …

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