The New Museum’s retrospective of Turner Prize winner Chris Ofili is a mind blower. Ofili, now in his mid forties, has been on the art world radar since 1999, a year he gained notoriety as the one who smeared cow dung on the holy virgin mary. Now almost two decades later, the incident is a mere afterthought. What he brings in his current exhibit Night And Day, is the skill of a great magician.
Three floors were devoted to twenty years of Ofili’s work. It started with several dozen framed watercolors entitled “Afro Muses”. The portraits, done over a ten year period (1995-2005) depict Ofili’s beautiful black men and women. Even though some resembled larger works, Ofili says the small 8×10″ paper goods should stand on their own and not be confused with his other paintings. Next were Marcus Garvey inspired canvases from 2002. Ofili uses the same colors of Garvey’s Pan African flag; red for the blood of martyrs, black for their skin and green for Africa, the land lost. The paintings themselves tell tales of love and courtship. Similar to constellations glimmering in a deep, lush forest, they harken back to Rousseau and art deco.
In two rare Ofili sculptures, Biblical passages are brought to light. “Annunciation” recounts the angel Gabriel informing Mary of her immaculate conception. Instead of a cerebral foretelling, Ofili creates a viscerally, sexually charged piece showing the angel and virgin in fornicating embrace. Gabriel is created in stunning black bronze and Mary in gold. Ofili was greatly influenced by Fra Angelico’s painting of the same incident. However, Ofili’s is more akin to greek mythology and has similarities to the sculpture in NY’s Rockefeller Center of Atlas holding up the celestial sphere.
In the other, Saint Sebastian remains true to form. The iconic figure is portrayed in literature as a christian martyr. In the tale, he is shot several times with arrows, but does not die. A blind woman nurses him back to health and her sight is restored. Ofili’s version shows a kneeled man filled with arrows. Some have said the homoeroticized position could reference the stigmata of certain things. The saint was eventually clubbed to death by his persecutor.
The last time an entire exhibit affected me greatly was in 2005 when the Brooklyn Museum had a Basquiat retrospective. The whole museum was devoted to Warhol’s muse and it was an experience to behold. However, no matter how grand, the eventual overloaded feeling of Basquiat, wasn’t present in Ofili’s work. Maybe because of Ofili’s British heritage, he has the sense of a great showman, someone who wants to perform and make every detail count. Each room was carefully curated and themes changed dramatically from space to space.
A set of drawings done not in the studio but at his home, showed a different side to the artist. Similar to art seen in a yoga or new age temple, they repeated lines similiar to those found on clam shells, each devoid of figure. Nearby, a series of paintings capturing the moment when day transitions into night were highly inventive. Mostly depicted in shadows the images appear as dreams; masked men on horseback, strange gardens, etc. They were made in the artist’s current home base Port Of Spain, Trinidad. On the fourth floor, the title’s counterpart were sunny delights.The general consensus for these very large canvases points to the work of Matisse and Gauguin. Brilliant color and native subject matter make them fodder for criticism, yet despite their immensely oversized nature offer a controlled and focused intimacy. In the end, Chris Ofili stands as a great illusionist who can take moments from history, religion and nature and turn them into fantastical scenes of afrocentricity.