Chris Ofili’s Frustrating, Profound "Paradise Lost"
Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio
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.