NEW MUSEUM | OCTOBER 29, 2014 − JANUARY 25, 2015
Night and Day is the first major U.S. retrospective of the work of British artist Chris Ofili, mounted just four years after his major retrospective at the Tate. Ofili draws influences from sources as varied as the work of William Blake, rap, Catholic religious imagery, Greek mythology, comic books, and the landscape of Trinidad. It is both a formal investigation into painting and a deeply emotional exploration into issues of race and Ofili’s own private history, firmly establishing him as an artist with an importance that supersedes his reputation for controversy.
Night and Day is spread over three floors, and presented in approximate chronology. Over the course of the exhibition a stylistic shift is clear—from a wild experimentation that draws from many areas of culture to a series of no less engaging imagistic forays into the practice of painting.
On the first floor, in the midst of an array of Ofili’s early, colorful paintings, many of them portraits, is Ofili’s painting “No Woman No Cry” (1998), a portrait of Doreen Lawrence, the mother of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager who was murdered while waiting for the bus in London in 1993. The subsequent murder investigation into Lawrence’s racially-motivated death at the hands of two white juveniles was marred by deep-seated institutional racism. “No Woman No Cry” shows Doreen Lawrence in profile, huge tear drops cascading down the center of the frame, a portrait of her son embedded in each one. Looking at this painting now, it is hard not to see a powerful resonance with the shooting of Michael Brown that has dominated the media in the past few months, and with the public, tear-filled recrimination by Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother, of the grand jury that failed to indict officer Darren Wilson: “Do you know how those bullets hit my son, what they did to his body, how they entered his body?”
Images like these recur throughout Night and Day with an energy that expands in all directions. Ofili’s early paintings are rendered in colorful strokes of oil and acrylic, surrounded by collaged elements of porn magazines, glitter, splashes of resin, colorful map pins, and clumps of elephant dung. They represent a diverse range of characters and subjects: invented superheroes in “The Naked Spirit of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars” (2000 − 01), religious portraiture in “The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996), and psychedelic landscapes “Third Eye Vision” (1999). All have an overriding visual language drawn from an audacious combination of Blaxploitation film and Renaissance art history. Even now, 20 years later, the work bristles with the energy that made Ofili a young artworld star, and the issues they raise are no less pertinent. His use of elephant dung, which was so controversial at the time, benefits from its distance to the harsh light of the tabloids. It seems much less a gesture of punk irreverence, of the sort that has characterized so much of the long-term reception of his YBA peers, than a subtle institutional critique. The importance and similarity of this gesture to the kind seen in the work of David Hammons is even clearer in retrospect. It addresses the kinds of roles that are expected for a black artist, a painter no less, by a predominantly white art-going audience. Ofili told Michael Kimmelman at the New York Times in 1999: “what people really want from black artists … We’re the voodoo king, the voodoo queen, the witch doctor, the drug dealer. … I’m giving them all of that.”
Probably the most famous of these early paintings is “The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996). Its presentation in the Brooklyn Museum’s Sensation exhibition in 1999, a touring exhibition that had controversial showings at the Hamburger Bahnhof and the Royal Academy, was a culture-war fire starter, leading to a civil court case by Rudolph Giuliani to block the funding of the museum. The work still bristles with an erotic and critically self-aware energy. It is a powerful incursion into popular expectations for painting. Its use of the Madonna challenges one presiding narrative of painting’s history in the West as a predominantly white discourse (with a problematic legacy of imperial borrowing), and it acts as a kind of avatar for Ofili’s own manifold mythology.
Throughout his career, Ofili has worked in a variety of styles, and these are all on display elsewhere throughout the museum. In an adjoining gallery, a series of Afro Paintings uses a limited color palette: the reds, blacks, and greens of the pan-African flag designed by Marcus Garvey. Of these, “Afro Green” (2005 − 08) is particularly beautiful. Two figures hold hands in a lush African wilderness—the work appearing variably as an abstraction and an Edenic fantasy, conjuring up a narrative landscape rife with possibility.
In contrast to the bright fluorescent light that illuminates the rest of the museum’s galleries, Ofili has dimmed the lights dramatically on the second floor. Nine paintings are spread across the gallery, their palette restrained deep blues and blacks. The room is cast in such a deep and domineering shadow that at first it is hard to make them out at all. On one wall stands “Blue Devils”(2014), a new painting whose title refers to a troupe of ghoulish Carnival dancers from Paramin, Trinidad. In accord with Trinidadian folklore, the blue devils, covered head to toe in blue pigment, are permitted to hassle tourists and transgress normal social mores. The shifting surface of “Blue Devils” reveals a black man in a hooded sweatshirt inset with a design that almost resembles a medieval suit of armor, standing in the center of the frame surrounded by indistinct policemen, who descend upon him in an anonymous, hostile mass. The painting has an immediate visceral power; it speaks not only to the overt violence American (and English) police notoriously direct at black youth, but also to the closeted, pervasive nature of such violence. Looking at “Blue Devils” and the other Blue Paintings made since Ofili moved from London to Trinidad, is akin to an experience had in the strange moments between sleep and waking; images arrive, are reconfigured, and disappear into darkness.
The exhibition concludes with a series of magnificent paintings of scenes from Trinidad, loosely made in response to Titian’s depictions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The paintings use much broader strokes and push the atmosphere of fantasy present in the Afro Paintings to a smoky, sensual nadir. Mounted on top of a rich painted wilderness that covers the walls from floor to ceiling, these are paired with a series of works made this year of scenes at Studio Film Club, a makeshift bar and film club in Trinidad run by Peter Doig (with whose work Ofili has long had a very close affinity). The lush atmosphere of the work of Paul Gauguin is a clear reference, as well as the work of Matisse and Picasso. Ofili’s “Ovid-Actaeon” (2011 − 12) shows a series of slender classical figures in repose against a purple background, with a stark division of color reminiscent of Matisse’s most dramatic Fauvist experiments. “The Raising of Lazarus”(2007) adopts an angular, disjointed style reminiscent of work from Picasso’s African period. But Ofili’s paintings reduce the problematic distance created by the historical import of images from the West Indies to Europe by diving into their setting headfirst. The canvases appear as if they have been soaked in the environments of Trinidad and have spilled out and filled the entire gallery, their vivid colors and elegant figuration easily dominating the entire space. With his fusion of styles Ofili creates for himself a uniquely multifarious space in the history of painting. These are images with extraordinary range: displaying humor, sadness, muffled and terrible violence, and perhaps ultimately, a sense of luminous possibility.