CHRIS OFILI: Paradise Lostby Jan Avgikos
DAVID ZWIRNER | SEPTEMBER 14 – OCTOBER 21, 2017
The viewer has a lot of heavy lifting to do in Chris Ofili’s new installation, enigmatically entitled Paradise Lost. Whose “paradise” is a matter of conjecture, but the experience of loss is triggered by our inability to fully see the four paintings and wrap-around wall mural that are the show’s star attractions. The inhibiting factor is a monumental chain-link cage screwed in place from floor to ceiling, occluding access to the pop-up inner sanctum. This enclosure claims most of the space of the main gallery, reserving for the viewer only a four-foot wide corridor around the perimeter. From this vantage point, peering through the chain-link, we struggle to lay eyes on the four optically charged black and white paintings inside the forbidden zone. It would be nice to see them up close, to examine their intricately patterned surfaces, and to more ably decipher the text titles that run down their vertical edges. But, no.
We don’t fare much better with the wall mural, a sweeping grisaille painting that towers to the top of the room and flows from one wall to the next to entirely surround the space. It features twenty-four graceful dancing figures, disposed against a flowering landscape, whose Orientalized features and exotic costumes beg for interpretation. Yet, we’re up too close to view them all at once. To add insult to injury, a chain-link pattern is stenciled over the mural—a shadow play to its hard metal counterpart—that reiterates the idea of constraint. We are reduced to craning and twisting and yearning for adequate perspective to better apprehend the mysterious chorus of bejeweled celebrants. (Or, one could always go online. The carnivalesque revelers have had a previous incarnation as a wall mural for a London exhibition of Ofili’s tapestry, “The Caged Bird’s Song,” shown earlier in the year).
One by one we take them in, taking note of their turbans, armbands, ankle bracelets, harem pants, and stylized expressions. Their exoticism is vaguely familiar: part Matisse odalisques, part Gauguin Polynesians, part genies from Aladdin’s magic lamp. They could hail from Ofili’s earlier glittering Afrodizzia madonnas and muses. They might even have migrated into the work from influences from Trinidad, the Caribbean island-nation where Ofili has lived for the past decade or so. Rendered in thin washes of gray paint, serene but also barely there, they haunt the installation, swaying rhythmically to the rumbling undertones of the colonial discourse they solicit.
Ofili has long mined sensitive fields of representation, and he’s enjoyed immunity where others might not. He’s English born and raised, but Nigerian by heritage. His dancers might well be seen as distantly related to the pliant bodies of colonized Others, but they are given as vestiges, mere traces of what was once central in his painting—his identification with Otherness.
The strain of exoticism he deploys, readily recalling motifs from early Modernist Primitivism, conjures the idea of paradise as a place of sublime but ultimately unattainable purity. We need look no further than Gauguin's attempt to become the “new Adam.” It was a quest that was over before it began.
To link the dancing figures to the Primitivists' desire to disappear into paradise, à la Gauguin, activates contents that might otherwise be subsumed by their decorative appeal. The press release quotes John Milton's description of Adam and Eve setting foot in Eden, from his epic poem, Paradise Lost, Book XII. No, Chris, don't send us to Milton's epic seventeeth century saga predicated on man's disobedience to God—although it's true that of late Ofili has dealt with themes evoking spiritual or religious reflection.
In this installation, it's failure that counts. We know, we're not ever getting back to the garden.
Again we ask, whose paradise filters into play? Gauguin’s search for a primordial paradise, one of endless pleasure and freedom, landed him in French Tahiti, but he was a permanent outsider. One wonders, has that fate befallen Ofili? After all, his previous Trinidadian paintings are highly occulted in their preoccupation with Creole folk culture and customs. Or, perhaps, estrangement is a burden we all share, symptomatic of losing our place in the world.
We turn again to the paintings in the cage. They are replete with markings that appear to derive from Ofili’s earlier “legacy work.” The dense clustered patterns are reminiscent of the cowrie shell and afro-dread doodles, automatic drawings typically produced as prints, referencing tropes of black and brown bodies. Times change, distance sets in. Iconographies once seen as identity-driven now feel folkloric. What one can gather from limited scrutiny is the visual complexity of the black and white paintings, all made in 2017. Ellipsis, in its churning density, conceals a form that seems only partially to emerge from the dense matrix of mark-making. V, with its fish-scale fractals, conceals a similarly lurking figural blob. So, too, in Embah and Libido, the kinetic design suggests hidden imagery. The effect is not unlike popular posters known as auto-stereograms or “magic eye illusions”: dot-filled pictures that produce a 3-D image when the viewer arranges their eyes in a certain way while looking at a 2-D pattern. The trick to seeing the hidden image involves “divergent viewing,” which means you look through the image, not at it.
Whether or not the paintings “come together” visually, the idea of divergence is in full swing. Taking apart, rather than putting together, promises semantic unmooring, opening the work up to disruption and difference. As if to emblematize this operation, a small sculpture featuring a dismembered puppet whose body parts dangle in a bird-cage, is stationed near the entrance to the installation. It functions nicely as both prelude and punch line to Ofili’s melancholia.
JAN AVGIKOS is a critic and historian who lives and works in NYC and the Hudson Valley.