Chris Ofili - Selected Press | David Zwirner

Chris Ofili

- Selected Press

Hedge fund manager Steven Cohen is donating Holy Virgin Maryby Chris Ofili to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The painting, which features a black Madonna against a gold background replete with images of female genitals and pieces of elephant dung, sparked an uproar when it was exhibited in the Brooklyn Museum show "Sensation" in 1999. Most of the critics of the piece were Catholic, and they were aghast over the eight-foot-tall depiction of the religious figure.

New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani also famously took offense at the controversial exhibition, calling it "sick stuff," and even tried to withhold city funding from the museum until it shut down the show. In response, the museum filed a lawsuit against the mayor accusing him of violating the first amendment by campaigning to halt payments, fire the board of trustees, and evict the institution. The legal battle ended a year later, when Giuliani agreed to restore the museum’s payments.

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To approach a Chris Ofili painting is to make peace with one's own smallness. For the last twenty or so years, the British artist has accumulated entire universes on his canvases, some of which almost reach a museum ceiling. In "Afrodizzia," from 1996, the heads of icons such as James Brown, Diana Ross, and Nelson Mandela, cut out from photographs, float glamorously, like planets, in a swirling cloud of multicolored dots. Ofili tends to use found materials—beads, glitter, sequins, and, most famously, elephant dung—to decorate his allegorical images. He has painted Eden in red, green, and black, the chromatic grammar of black liberation, large and lush. When, a couple of years ago, he created a set for the Royal Ballet, the project required an entire warehouse. "Did I really paint something that big?" he said when the curtain rose on "Metamorphosis: Titian 2012," at the Royal Opera House in London, the city where he lived full time until 2005. He drew the backdrop with a stick of charcoal inside a length of bamboo. "When I was drawing the big orange moon I found that I was drawing the big curved line of it for about a minute," he told Charlotte Higgins, of the Guardian. "I realised I had never drawn a continuous line for that length of time."

Ofili, who is forty-eight, is restless, a master who fiendishly pursues change. As a student at the Chelsea School of Art, his portraiture was reminiscent of the work of George Condo. By the time Ofili had gained the permanent attention of the often fickle international art world, in the late nineties, he was hung up on the boisterous spirit of hip-hop. In 2005, he moved to Trinidad and started making ecstatic, ecological scenes, influenced by the nature around him. Two years ago, I listened to the titan of philosophy Fred Moten talk about the fraught convergence of blueness and blackness in "Blue Riders," Ofili’s series that fantastically racialized the early-twentieth-century German Der Blaue Reiter movement’s devotional obsession with the color blue. "Paradise Lost," his new exhibition at the David Zwirner gallery in New York, represents a move, however momentarily, from Ovidian bounty to Miltonian loss. The Chelsea exhibition has two rooms. From the lobby the first appears empty, an intimidatingly empty antechamber. To the left of the room is a birdcage. Inside it, miniature objects dangle on a string of golden beads, each apparently torn from a wooden puppet: a torso, in a prison-striped shirt, with arms outstretched; a black man's head; his cartoonishly muscular legs. Peering at this violent, impish display, Ofili's viewers are suddenly made to feel large, and self-consciously so.

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Chris Ofili is still fearless after all these years. His current stunning gallery-filling exhibition "Paradise Lost," at David Zwirner through October 21, consists of just four paintings. The visual range here is narrow, austere, systemized. Each canvas is rendered in black-and-white patterns of little shapes, some of which convert into recognizable forms. Words appearing three times. Each of the paintings is slightly larger than life-sized, flat, not messy, loosely abstract, and look like a graphic combination of stained glass, dish towels, mystic dotted Australian dream paintings, and nonrepresentational movie posters. All four paintings are hung inside a large square of floor-to-ceiling cyclone-fencing cage — facing inward. Meaning viewers must take up positions on the either side of the gallery and look through the fence to see the work at all. There are only a few feet between the fence and walls. Yet the gestalt of "Paradise Lost" exudes a metaphysical geography of philosophy and otherness.

The walls are decorated with a race of giant, ghostly, semi-naked exotic gods gazing at us from behind another painted cyclone fence. They dance, commune with one another or look at us with tenderness, all enveloped in some earthly paradise. We feel an ethos of compassion in this limbo between the paintings and the walls. I felt taken out of myself and into some trans-historical cloister where invisible forces manifest themselves. For me "Paradise Lost" is Ofili creating his own conceptual, eroticized, blacker, and less glowingly Buddhist Rothko Chapel.

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To honor the Venezuelan-American artist María Sol Escobar, known as Marisol, who died last year, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago has named its new restaurant after her. Decorating the Marisol dining room was the job of the English artist Chris Ofili, who also painted the colorful mural and the other artwork on the walls. The chef Jason Hammel, who owns Lula Cafe in Chicago, features dinner and counter service, and soon, lunch and brunch with menus that are contemporary and long on vegetables. There’s a steak sandwich with egg called At the Spring Street Diner c. 1972, in homage to Marisol, who donated the museum’s first acquisition.

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A rare and beautiful Trinidad moment is happening in three New York City galleries. It started on Wednesday night when Chris Ofili opened with his brave and profound new work at David Zwirner on 19th Street. The next night brought Peter Doig’s tour de force new paintings and drawings uptown at Michael Werner Gallery—whose rooms were once home to Leo Castelli’s iconic stable of artists. And Saturday night, Cape Town–born Lisa Brice made her Manhattan debut (and her first show in the United States in nearly 30 years) at Salon 94 Bowery. Her edgy, figurative canvases sizzle with bold women in various stages of undress, and black cats whose hisses resound through her confident paint strokes. When the shows opened, Ofili, Doig, and Brice were surprised to find they had all made work in homage to the charismatic Trinidadian poet-cum-artist Embah, who passed away two years ago.

Brice met Ofili and Doig (who had lived in Trinidad for five years as a child) back in 2000, when all three were on a residency program located in a former Port of Spain rum factory. Since then, they’ve all ended up making Trinidad home in one way or another. The island enchanted them with its racial tolerance, fabulous music, ebulliently independent people, and world-renowned carnival. On that first residency, they also met Embah, who, like Trinidad itself, was a big presence that continues to occupy their hearts and minds. Born in 1937, his idiosyncratic work includes carved wooden sculptures of imaginary creatures and carnival figures, one of them a man dressed as a bat, and vividly colored paintings in a variety of media. His work, coupled with his highly original conversation, mesmerized the three residents.

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It is a dozen years since Chris Ofili deliberately stepped away from the art worlds of London and New York and moved to Trinidad. At the time Ofili was famous in the popular imagination for two things. He had been, aged 30 in 1998, the first black winner of the Turner prize, in part for his indelible tribute to Doreen and Stephen Lawrence, "No Woman, No Cry." And he had achieved international notoriety when New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani closed down a show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art because it featured Ofili's (beautiful) painting of "Holy Virgin Mary," which employed spherical lumps of elephant dung, his signature material, and a host of angels that on close inspection were cut-outs from porn magazines. Ofili was too smart, and too good an artist to want either of those lines of notoriety to define him. So he moved in part to escape those pigeonholes–"black British artist", "pachyderm shit Giuliani guy"–to make things new.

He first went to Trinidad in 2000 to host a workshop in Port of Spain, along with his great friend from Chelsea art school days the Scottish-Canadian painter Peter Doig. They were both entranced by what they found on the island, and went back a dozen times, before separately buying land and moving permanently four or five years later. I remember talking to Doig about that shared decision in an interview, not long after they had gone, and him being still in thrall to the sheer strangeness of exploring the island with Ofili on that first trip, partly by canoe. Looking back now, Ofili, born in Manchester to first generation parents from Nigeria, lights up in a similar way recalling that voyage of discovery.

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Photo by Ian Allen for TIME

Chris Ofili's extraordinary talent is to speak about contemporary issues through the romance of painting. He achieved early success in London–winning the Turner Prize and representing Britain at the Venice Biennale–almost as soon as he emerged. With works like "No Woman, No Cry," "The Holy Virgin Mary," both breathtaking and controversial in equal measure, he positioned himself as an artist who could redefine art practice by affirming the relevance of painting for the 21st century. Since moving to Trinidad, he has drawn inspiration from the island, its natural beauty and its distinct cultural tropes. Incredibly, he has re-emerged with an equally powerful relevance. In his work, he seeks to speak to political issues; his is a social imperative. He asks questions about our time through intoxicating visual compositions that examine peripheral modernities and enable us to make sense of our world.

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Chris Ofili makes paintings that will not let us be. For more than two decades, the work of this British artist has dazzled and discomfited, seduced and unsettled, gliding effortlessly between high and low, among cultures, ricocheting off different racial stereotypes and religious beliefs. His paintings mesmerize, whether with their opulent dotted surfaces or bawdy eroticism, their perfumed colors or their riffs on established masterpieces.

One example is "Rodin ... The Thinker," a black woman in garter belt, bra and bright orange wig. Another is a St. Sebastian in rusted bronze, reinterpreted as a dark-skinned martyr who, instead of arrows, is riddled with nails, conjuring a Congolese power figure. And then there are the eccentric materials, brightly colored map pins, glitter and–most famous–elephant dung. And always, through changes in subject, technique and style, Mr. Ofili never loses touch with his belief in painting as, foremost, a sensual, accessible experience meant to engross the eye before doing much with the mind. Sometimes he challenges the basic act of seeing.  

"Chris Ofili: Night and Day," the New Museum's intoxicating midcareer survey of Mr. Ofili's ambitious art, presents six distinct bodies of paintings and drawings across three floors. In a darkened gallery on the museum's third floor hangs shadowy paintings whose images flicker amid dark metallic purples, blues and reds. This ambiguous perceptual experience is akin to looking at the paintings of Ad Reinhardt, the Abstract Expressionist master of abstract geometries enmeshed in barely differentiated shades of black. But Mr. Ofili's fleeting motifs reveal themselves to include images, set amid tropical settings, of a hanged figure, soldiers brandishing bayonets, and a black man surrounded by white policemen.

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It was a shitstorm that ended in a witch hunt. "If this painting is censored, I'm canceling the show," snapped English megacollector Charles Saatchi. He said this to me privately in the early hours of September 18, 1999, amidst an exhibition installation at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Days before, the New York Daily News had run the headline "B'KLYN GALLERY OF HORROR. GRUESOME MUSEUM SHOW STIRS CONTROVERSY." The "gallery" was the Brooklyn Museum. The "horror" was Sensation, a show of about 40 young British artists from Saatchi's collection who'd emerged in the early 1990s, most of whom were already fading, making the show seem, to those in the art world, something of a non-event.

Until the Daily News headline. The "controversy" was one painting: Chris Ofili's beautifully bioluminescent 1996 depiction of a black woman cloaked in cerulean blue. A wavy visage composed of what look like light-emitting microorganisms, she's surrounded by radiating dots of enamel paint and constellations of small, cutout photographic body parts. Her right breast is fashioned of elephant dung secured to the canvas and decorated with black map-tacks. The painting rests on two dung balls, one festooned with pins that say "Virgin," the other, "Mary." Whether it was the visage being black with large "negro lips," Ofili being black (Nigerian-born, Catholic, and a former altar boy), the body parts in the photos being black, the dung (a material many cultures deem sacred), or the title The Holy Virgin Mary, everything went to hell. Sight unseen, then-mayor Giuliani opined that the dung had been "flung," called the painting "sick," and vowed to defund the museum of millions of dollars. The Catholic League objected to the Madonna being "black" and railed over "anuses." The Jewish Orthodox Union insidiously suggested that the next defacing might "be a Jewish ritual item." Just one year after the Supreme Court ruled against Karen Finley in her case against the NEA (whose grant to her had been vetoed over "decency issues"), the art world got its shorts in a moralistic twist and, rather than defending Ofili, denounced the museum for colluding with Saatchi to show a private collection in a public institution.

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Chris Ofili paints in a dilapidated white cottage on Lady Chancellor Road, about ten minutes from downtown Port of Spain, in Trinidad. It has three rooms, each large enough to accommodate one or two of the strange, dreamlike paintings he is working on. Aside from taking out the kitchen, Ofili has done nothing to the cottage. Rickety windows on one side are propped open with sticks. No air-conditioner, no screens, no studio assistant. The house clings to a steep hillside, the floor slants downhill, and the floorboards sag and groan. Most of the recent paintings in Ofili's first major New York retrospective, which opens at the New Museum on October 29th, were done in these rooms.

"I think I just resolved something about this one," he said, somewhat conspiratorially. It was a morning in June, and we were looking at a dark nine-foot-tall vertical painting called "Lime Bar," which he had been working on since April. A black man in a frilled white semi-transparent shirt stands behind a bar squeezing limes, and in the foreground a couple in shadow, a man and a woman, sit close together drinking. "When I leave the studio at night, I take a photo of the picture I'm working on," Ofili continued. "This morning when I woke up, I looked at the photo and thought, I'll change his shirt." The barman's shirt had originally been white, but Ofili had painted it black, to make the figure recede. "It looked ghastly," he said. "So this morning I decided to make the shirt white again, but the black was still wet, and the paint wasn't going on the way I wanted. I started to blot it with this"–he picked up an old green T-shirt to demonstrate–"and it left this amazing texture. I got lucky. Until that moment it was all panic and despair, because I thought I was going to lose it."

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