The Shock of the Bold; Chris Ofili May Be a Surprising Choice as the National Gallery's Artist in Residence, but When You See His Work for the First Time It Is Overwhelming

The Evening Standard (London, England), September 21, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Shock of the Bold; Chris Ofili May Be a Surprising Choice as the National Gallery's Artist in Residence, but When You See His Work for the First Time It Is Overwhelming


Byline: NORMAN LEBRECHT

THE adrenaline rush is irresistible. Enter the room and the senses are instantly engaged by colour and light and a faint whiff of decay - either over-polished floors, or very old animal ordure.

The shapes are altogether familiar.

Animals are dancing off the walls, but dancing with such dignity that there is no possibility of condescension, either on the part of the artist towards the beast or by the spectator towards the artist. This is clearly a man who respects wildlife.

We knew that much from a flood of media reviews of his limelight show at the 2003 Venice Biennale. Any element of surprise in encountering Chris Ofili's work for the first time in Tate Britain's new display is ruled out by the anticipated parade of friendly animals - no longer his trademark elephants but a family of rhesus monkeys, each panel abutted by a lump of elephant dung by way of artist signature.

Yet, and it's a big yet, seeing Ofili's 13-canvas work, titled The Upper Room, on the wall is nothing like the reports I have read, and seeing him embraced this week as an Establishment trophy - artist in residence at the National Gallery - is no shock at all. Rather, it is a moment familiar from cultural history: the day the controversial became conventional.

Ofili, British born in 1968 of Nigerian descent, is not an obvious insider.

Where others cling to the Young British Artists nametag like middlerank executives at an international sales convention, Ofili has declared most contemporary art to be "a load of bullshit" and works away contentedly in a small studio with a fresh pile of droppings, courtesy of London Zoo, just beside the door.

He met his first elephants on a British Council travel scholarship to Zimbabwe in 1992 and plunged both hands into their mess as a way of incorporating Africa into his art, or so he said.

Against the herd mentality of the YBAs, a phenomenon defined by the impulse buying of extremely rich collector-dealers and the collusion of public curators who benefit from their bequests, Ofili stands apart, secure in a method that serenely hints at the wild side of his heritage while, at the same time, the solemn spangle of pearly kings and queens upon his canvases reflects an echo of milky British rituals.

That makes him a classic Sinatra: a My Way man. He may have come up through the Tate-stamped 1998 Turner Prize and the Saatchi-owned Sensation show, but the difference with Chris Ofili is that where most YBAs are driven by a cynicism that claims to be irony, his stock in trade is a naturalism whose exuberance is simple, consistent and physically irresistible.

Compared to Damien Hirst, whose penis-less pose in the new David Bailey collection shrinks him to selfcaricature, or to Tracey Emin, whose utterances grow more sour with middle age, Ofili makes no attempt to offend, to progress or to playact.

The Tate has endowed him with a pseudo-religious halo, likening the 13 monkeys of The Upper Room to a contemporary Last Supper - an impression reinforced by the dimly lit, hushed aisle and high ceiling designed by architect David Adjaye, themselves a homiletic refutation of the horror that was manufactured in America where Rightwing ranters maintain that Ofili "smeared" an image of the Virgin Mary with elephant waste. …

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