• Review

  • December 11th, 2014 12.11.2014

    Violent Voyeurism: Chris Ofili at the New Museum


    Eyes meet image, quickly scanning over the subtleties and ignoring details to affirm your initial judgment. Then you take a step closer, and the image gives way to texture—painted dots like beads that shape their figure’s faces, fingers, Afros, breasts, or penis. Texture gives way once more, to medium—either glitter or resin, which masks a quiet pattern. And once you’re deep in it, it takes a concerted effort to extract yourself, peel your eyes off the pattern, through the glitter, between the dots, and return to the image, which still exists, but not like it did before. The images, whose initial power first relied on overt depictions of swollen sex parts, afro-centric styling, cartoonish characteristics are now freed of first impressions and subsume the eye in waves and vibrations too volatile to be pinned down.

    This is only the first room of Ofili’s mid-career survey Night and Day, currently on view at the New Museum through January 25, and an exhibition that is not to be missed. These first works, installed on the second floor galleries, are nearly two decades old now, but their brilliance has not yet waned. Each piece is a masterful composition of diverse techniques, privileging the black body in both Ofili’s fictitious and documentary narrative landscapes. And they are very much of the body— in their collaged imagery of dicks, tits, and ass; in their overbearing size which draws you in and expels you out; in their imagined heat and smell that emanates off the elephant shit that holds them afloat. His black bodies occupy a black history, reimagining Rodin’s Thinker as a black smirking beauty with golden locks and garter in Rodin…The Thinker (1997), or affirming the Black Madonna in the infamous The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), with elephant shit nipple that nearly stripped the Brooklyn Museum of its municipal funds in 1999.

    Ofili’s overt references range through the bodies of work, which span decades. He draws intimately from his lived experience: from his Catholicism, his view of a seedy night scene outside his studio window, his interactions from behind the bar in his current home country of Trinidad, and most present in all his works—from being a black man, saturating his works with black culture, film, prejudice, and the violence against black people that spans continents and centuries.

    Ascend to the shadows of the third floor, where Ofili has installed a series of iridescent black and blue paintings in a very dimly lit room. It takes time—serious time—for your eyes to calibrate themselves from the glitter and gold to the subtleties of night vision. These paintings are dark, they are scary, they are difficult to decipher and frustratingly so. Their reflective capacity and the carefully placed lighting forces you to walk back and forth, stretch and bend to catch a moment of clarity, a complete image. These images—of a lynching, of soldiers, of men high on horseback subsumed by dense jungle­—are fleeting, and the exerted effort necessary to see them creates a sense of violent voyeurism. Any reproduced image you may come across of these works should be regarded as an extreme and disparate translation of what happens to the mind and body when it stands in the dark.

    The exhibition’s final act is a selection of paintings completed since 2005. This environment is, once again, vastly different from the previous two floors and effortlessly elevates Ofili to a realm of ongoing artistic transformation that shows no sign of slowing.  The walls are covered in a loose and vibrant purple floral pattern from Ofili’s commissioned set for Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 at the Royal Ballet. Ovid’s Metamorphoses has never been so sexy, as Ofili again invokes the body in entirely new ways, articulating graceful limbs in fearless shades of gold and purple. The paintings are constructed from rich matte colors, bold shapes, and abstract forms. They are at once formal and fantastical, as lush patterns melt into a sleuth of art historical sources that serve only as inspiration for entirely new applications.

    Ofili’s disparate styles and dramatic shifts in technique are what characterize Night and Day, encompassing a wide range of painting, sculpture, drawings, and even costume design. But where Ofili’s earlier work rested on complex stratum of disparate images, icons, tragedy and humor, his newest work has a sense of wholeness and honesty too sure of itself to be systematically unpacked. Each painting is a set in itself, acting as tableaus for complex and mysterious dramas—whether they be from Roman mythology or Ofili’s own life.

    Night and Day is currently on view at the New Museum through January 25, 2014.