Black Narcissus And Opulent Romanticism: Chris Ofili A Twenty Year Survey

Chris Ofili

Taken from the Cole Porter song, the title of this gorgeous two decade survey show is more then apt. Including over thirty major paintings, plus site-specific environments on two of the Museum’s floors, this exhibition posits Ofili as one of our major innovative artists.

Ofili’s first introduction to New York City was as part of the Brooklyn Museum’s 1999 “Sensation” show, where his Madonna image incorporated elephant dung and tiny collaged nude body photographs. Deemed sacrilegious by then Mayor Giuliani “The Holy Virgin Mary”, is just one of the vibrant works from the nineties using glitter, pins, and elephant dung ,  juxtaposing meticulous imagery with lyricism, Blaxploitation and hip hop. The “Afromuses” (1995-2005),  a watercolor and pencil portrait series, originally seen at New York City’s Studio Museum of Harlem, are also presented, in all their detailed, richly hued glory.

The third Museum floor features Ofili’s “Blue Rider” series. Nine of these seductive, large scale paintings are seen in an architectural environment designed by the artist. A darkened and foreboding azure atmosphere evokes twilight, resounding with the echo of blues music in a tropical stillness.  The abbreviated palette of indigo, obsidian, silver and ultramarine adds to the drama. These paintings demand attention: there are Klan-esque figures, lynchings from barren branches, spooky details of Spanish moss, challenging the viewer to decipher the shadowed imagery. Brutality lurks behind the dimmed beauty. The eight somber canvases are a haunting artistic response to complex meditations upon race and politics, born from Ofili’s own experiences as a black man’s encounters with the London police.  Along with exploding the myth of dead painting, Ofili invigorates the concept of activist art.

In 2005 the artist moved from London to Trinidad, where he continues to live and work.  An island influence is evident in the fourth floor exhibition. Inspired by the 1947 film, “Black Narcissus” which used richly painted backdrops to create an exotic and lush setting, Ofili has set the stage for the elongated and enigmatic figures in his latest works. The purple walls of flora, ferns and trees are echoed in the paintings, which are the result of an invitation from the National Gallery of London and the Royal Ballet to create works “inspired” from Titian’s paintings of Roman gods and humans. Combining Ofili’s iconic vision of high and low culture,  the paintings reflect Titian’s own “painted poems” drawn from the Roman poet Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.”  Which is the same title of this painting series, united by an opulent romanticism and voluptuous color.

Ofili is an artist who takes chances, ever receptive to influences that begin with biblical imagery, art history and jump to pop culture. “Night and Day” celebrates Chris Ofili’s original, inclusive and rich pictorial language.

Photo: Chris Ofili, Afronirvana, 2002. Oil, acrylic, polyester resin, aluminum foil, glitter, map pins, and elephant dung on canvas, 108 x 144 in (274.3 x 365.7 cm). © Chris Ofili. Courtesy the artist, David Zwirner, New York / London and Victoria Miro, London

Chris Ofili Night and Day: Words: Ilka Scobie Museum NY  Exhibition runs until Jan. 25, 2015


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