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SPANNING THREE GALLERY FLOORS, Chris Ofili’s exhibition at the New Museum doesn’t hold back, presenting his greatest hits and new works, fabulous canvases that refute any notion that painting is dead. His culturally tuned layered and embellished canvases from the 1990s are on view, along with a quintet of red, black and green nods to black power and black love, the Afro Margin series, The Blue Rider series, the Afromuse watercolor portraits, and four new large-scale paintings completed this year.

Opening today, “Night and Day” surveys Ofili’s work over the past two decades in his first major solo museum show in the United States. More than 30 large-scale paintings are presented along with watercolors, drawings and sculpture. Over the years, experimentation with ideas and media have continued to press his practice in compelling new directions. Ofili has explored race and gender issues and been inspired by pop culture, religion, art history and more recently, his surroundings in Trinidad where he is based.

At yesterday’s press preview, Massimiliano Gioni, the museum’s artistic director and co-curator of the ambitious exhibition, recommended that the works be viewed beginning on the second floor where early canvases for which Ofili is best known are on view, and then progressing on to the third and fourth floors. This path introduces his practice and its transitions largely chronologically.

Following this approach, the experience begins on the second floor where the elevator opens to reveal a series of Ofili’s watercolor and pencil portraits on paper from 1995 to 2005. Twenty-six diptychs from “Afromuses (Couple)” and 64 parts from “Untitled (Afromuse)” are displayed gallery style along the length of an entire wall. The full collection of 181 images was presented at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2005.

Around the corner, this floor is dominated by Ofili’s signature layered paintings from the 1990s and early 2000s shown in the expansive main gallery space. As the museum notes, his practice melds figuration, abstraction and decoration and Ofili flexes his muscles in each of these areas, powerfully incorporating all three in one canvas after another.

A museum guard is stationed alongside his infamous “The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996). Standing eight-feet tall, the mixed media painting features an exposed elephant dung breast and is perched on balls of elephant dung embellished with map pins spelling out the words “Virgin” and “Mary.” The image caused an uproar in 1999 when it was included in the group exhibition “Sensation” at the Brooklyn Museum. When then-Mayor Giuliani learned about the work he was so incensed he temporarily cut city funding to the museum.

 

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From left, Installation view of “No Woman, No Cry” (1998) and “The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996). | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

Throughout the exhibition Ofili mocks and celebrates representation and art history. Among a dozen provocative, funky, psychedelic and color-infused paintings, half of the images depict women, including “She,” “Blossom,” and “Foxy Roxy” (all 1997).

The religious iconography of “The Holy Virgin Mary” is paired with “No Woman, No Cry” (1998), a portrait of a melancholy woman. Though the painting takes its name from a Bob Marley anthem, the image references the racially motivated killing of Stephen Lawrence, a young black Brit, and the botched police investigation of the crime. The tears running down the subject’s face are small collaged portraits of the murdered teen.

Displayed on either side nearby is a personified penis (“Pimpin’ ain’t easy,” 1997) and an homage to soul and jazz music legends including James Brown, Miles Davis and Diana Ross (Afrodizzia,” 1996). His “Rodin…The Thinker” (1997-98), a woman with orange bombshell-style hair and a garter belt, is more crafty and coy than contemplative.

It is imperative that Ofili’s paintings be examined up close, only then is the precision with which he has layered the canvases using paint, epoxy and collage to introduce depth and texture revealed. Tiny magazine cut-outs of people with Afros, their heads and faces only, are sprinkled throughout “She” and “Afrodizzia.” These details go unnoticed, appearing as patterning elements, unless the paintings are viewed within inches. For “The Holy Virgin Mary,” the cut-outs are “little backsides and female genitalia,” as Art in America described them, that must have of been sourced from porn magazines.

Next door, humor, drama, cultural delight and incredible vision emanate from five Afrocentric paintings given pride of place in their own intimate gallery setting. Here, with titles including “Afronirvana” (2002) and “Triple Beam Dreamer” (2001-02), Ofili’s multifaceted approach is at its finest, layering acrylic paint, glitter, resin, foil and leaves on horizontal and vertical canvases.

Humor, drama, cultural delight and incredible vision emanate from five Afrocentric works given pride of place in their own intimate gallery setting.

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Chris Ofili, “Triple Beam Dreamer,” 2001–02 (acrylic, oil, leaves, glitter, polyester resin, map pins, and elephant dung on linen) | Courtesy the artist, David Zwirner, New York/London, and Victoria Miro, London. © Chris Ofili

 

All of the works on this floor are audacious and wonderful and the transition to the third floor introduces a shift in mood and environment. Nine large paintings in tones of navy blue (sometimes reading black or deep plum) are presented in a dramatically lit room, creating a chapel-like space. The room is enveloped in charcoal gray carpet and charcoal gray walls. Two benches encourage observation and rumination. Initially, the fact that the dark canvases bear fully realized narrative images is hard to decipher. Created between 2006 and 2014, “The Blue Rider” paintings are the subject of “Blue Black,” artist Glenn Ligon’s essay in the exhibition catalog.

“Ofili renders the mountains, lush vegetation, waterfalls, and incandescent night of his adopted home in hues of blue, making works that delve into Trinidad’s mystery, its vividness, and what the artist has called its full-on three-dimensionality,” Ligon writes.

“While they touch on familiar themes in Ofili’s oeuvre—spirituality, eroticism, nature, history, and myth—their extravagant blueness threatens to overwhelm any given set of motifs or concerns. There is a powerful mood expressed in the canvases, although they are not moody, for they possess the exuberance that characterizes all of Ofili’s work; he could not make joyless paintings about being blue.”

Displayed around the gallery side-by-side, essentially in deep conversation with one another, the bold statement made by the suite of blue canvases renders the Afro Margin drawings (2004-07) in the adjacent alcove dull by comparison. They are far from it. The drawings invoke stacks of afros, abstract motifs that serve as points of departure to explore literal and symbolic margins, societal and otherwise.

The contrast between the two bodies of work reflects Ofili’s practice and the entire exhibition’s theme of night and day: the works are both bold and restrained, introspective and expressive.

The contrast reflects Ofili’s practice and the entire exhibition’s theme of night and day: the works are bold and restrained, both introspective and expressive.

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Installation view of “Confession (Lady Chancellor),” (2007). | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

Born in Manchester, England, in 1968, Ofili was educated at the Royal College of Art. He won the Turner prize in 1998 and represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2003. In 2005, he moved from London to Port of Spain, Trinidad, where he currently lives and works.

In the final installation on the fourth floor, his newer paintings are presented in a lush environment reminiscent of his tropical home. Inspired by the 1947 film “Black Narcissus,” the walls are painted with purple floral and foliage patterns that define the space. Mythical, exotic and dream-like, in some instances referencing Gauguin and Matisse, the canvases on view here were produced in the late 2000s and early 2010s and include Ofili’s “Metamorphoses” series which takes its name from Ovid’s poem.

“Ovid-Desire” (2011-12), a particularly thoughtful, beautiful interpretation executed in a breathtaking palette appears on the cover of the catalog which features Ligon’s essay and contributions from Gioni, Robert Storr, dean of Yale’s School of Art, and fellow British artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Another painting, “Lime Bar” (2014) is more personal (shown at top of page, at right). Ofili casts himself as the bartender in the image and the silhouetted couple in the foreground is his good friend architect David Adjaye and his wife.

Distributed among the gallery floors, three sculptures bring his figurative aesthetic into three-dimensions, demonstrating his dexterity with bronze, stainless steel and iron.

Roaming the museum is a transfixing experience. Thoughtful representations of black people and the black experience are everywhere, with full-throttled interpretations of Roman poetry nestled comfortably nearby. Present in each body of work, Ofili’s deft perspective, painting and drawing techniques and use of color or not, unify his diverse oeuvre.

Thoughtful representations of black people and the black experience are everywhere, with full-throttled interpretations of Roman poetry nestled comfortably nearby.

It’s been a productive 20 years. “Night and Day” is a triumph, clearly demonstrating Ofili’s creative confidence in boldly pursuing new directions. The variety in his work is impressive, particularly given that his innovation and voice aren’t diminished when he takes a turn. CT

 

“Night and Day” is on view at the New Museum in New York through Jan. 25, 2015 (extended to Feb. 1), when it will travel to the Aspen Art Museum in Colorado (June – September 2015).

 

EXHIBITION CATALOG: “Chris Ofili: Night and Day” Edited by Massimiliano Gioni (Skira Rizzoli, 214 pages). Published Oct. 28, 2014.

 

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From left, Installation view of “Afronirvana” (2002) and “Triple Beam Dreamer” (2001-02) | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

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Detail of Chris Ofili, “Afro Love and Envy,” 2002-03 (acrylic, oil, polyester resin, glitter, map pins and elephant dung on linen). | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

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Detail of “She,” 1997 (acrylic, oil, polyester resin, paper collage, glitter, map pins, and elephant dung on linen). | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

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Exhibition Catalog Cover Image: Chris Ofili, “Ovid-Desire,” 2011–12 (oil, pastel, and charcoal on linen). | Courtesy the artist, David Zwirner, New York/London, and Victoria Miro, London. © Chris Ofili

 

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Chris Ofili, “Ovid-Actaeon,” 2011–12 (oil and charcoal on linen). | Courtesy the artist, David Zwirner, New York/London, and Victoria Miro, London. ©Chris Ofili

 

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Detail, installation view of “Untitled (Afromuse),” 1995 (watercolor and pencil on paper, 64 parts). | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

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Chris Ofili, “Untitled (Afromuse),” 1995–2005 (watercolor and pencil on paper). | Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London. © Chris Ofili

 

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Chris Ofili, “The Adoration of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars (Third Version),” 1998 (oil, acrylic, polyester resin, paper collage, glitter, map pins, and elephant dung on linen). | Courtesy the artist, David Zwirner, New York/London, and Victoria Miro, London. © Chris Ofili

 

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Chris Ofili, “Confession (Lady Chancellor),” 2007 (oil on linen). | Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London. © Chris Ofili

 

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