Medium and Message, Both Unsettling
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.
Standing before this last, especially disturbing image, which is titled “Blue Devils,” you understand beyond a doubt that the through line in this beautiful show is blackness: as night, as history, as culture, as skin, as majesty, as terror, as paranoia, as myth. It is present in the show’s opening second-floor gallery, too, but with a playful forthright decorativeness: Here are over 100 small watercolor “Afromuses,” bust-length portraits of imaginary men and women in full face or in profile, that Mr. Ofili began in 1995. At once regal and cartoonish, they suggest an extended family of royal ancestors and a bottomless well of inspiration.
In the next gallery, a dozen paintings from the late 1990s line the wall. They depict raffish black superheroes, blaxploitation film heroines and a brown clown-faced phallus — curvaceous characters with layers of dots, glitter-strewn resin and exotic backdrops — especially the radiating loops behind the goddesslike “She.” All are surrounded by tiny collaged images from black music or pornographic magazines, and garnished with one or more clumps of elephant dung, shellacked and stuck with colorful map pins that form decorative patterns or state the work’s title.
Two additional clumps support each canvas as it leans against the wall like some icon or ex voto, reminding us that painting is a universal, not Western, art form. The only work lacking a central figure in this first group is “Afrodizzia,” a psychedelic masterpiece of jewel-colored streamers that pays homage to black musicians like Little Richard, Michael Jackson and Miles Davis, even while embellishing their images with comically enormous black Afros.
In the early aughts, summarized in an adjoining gallery, Mr. Ofili put a political symbol — the red, black and green of Marcus Garvey’s Pan-African flag — to lavish use. The five paintings here, which represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2003, depict figures, tropical plants and flowers. In three of them, mysterious lovers (or entertainers), descendants of the Afromuses, appear in formal evening dress. In two others, female nudes recline before us. It is as if the black maid in Manet’s 19th-century landmark “Olympia” has assumed the place of her white mistress. In each of these exultant paintings, a richly decorated dung ball forms the center of an immense star that seems to bless the scene like the star of Bethlehem.
Outstanding painters inevitably expand the medium to suit their needs and the specifics of their lives, and Mr. Ofili is no exception. Born in Manchester, England, in 1968, to Nigerian parents, he emerged with the group of Young British Artists led by Damien Hirst who heated London’s art scene in the early 1990s. His approach lacked their Conceptual orientation, but this did not stop him from being included in “Sensation,” the exhibition of the advertising magnate Charles Saatchi’s collection of Young British Artists at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999.
The rest is local history: Mr. Ofili’s painting, “The Holy Virgin Mary,” caused noisy outrage. Now displayed in the New Museum show, it depicts a black Madonna, a clump of elephant dung, shellacked and decorated as always in Mr. Ofili’s paintings, replacing her right breast, which is exposed in keeping with Renaissance tradition. She is also surrounded by little putti that on close inspection turn out to be images from pornographic magazines.
Mr. Ofili’s lack of Conceptual credentials differentiates him from American black artists whose art focuses on black identity, among them Glenn Ligon, Lorna Simpson or Kara Walker (although he shares Ms. Walker’s upfront bawdiness). Mr. Ofili has more in common with painters who couch blackness in a fierce visuality, namely Mickalene Thomas, Kerry James Marshall, Robert Colescott and Ellen Gallagher, and with more distant precedents such as the insistent colors and forms of the American painters Bob Thompson, Beauford Delaney and William H. Johnson.
On a larger stage, Mr. Ofili belongs to a multigenerational group of painters, black and white, born primarily during the second half of the 20th century, who have sidestepped several popular wisdoms. They dismissed Minimalism’s premise that art had to be abstract, laughed at the post-Minimalist belief that painting was dead and largely ignored the Pictures Generation assertion that the only good image was a photo-based one. (Among these artists are Carroll Dunham, Nicole Eisenman and Ms. Thomas.) They turned back to Pop Art, the unfinished figurative styles of early Modernism, or non-Western art, among other sources. Mr. Ofili also rejected the early ’90s contention that painting could not be political, making it so by making it fully “out of himself,” to paraphrase Barnett Newman. It is a demanding, if not excruciating process that most young artists today fail to grasp, much less to undertake.
Organized by Massimiliano Gioni, the New Museum’s artistic director; its curator, Gary Carrion-Murayari; and Margot Norton, an assistant curator, the exhibition proceeds upward from the second floor with each gallery offering a very different experience. After the decorativeness of the dotted paintings, gears shift radically on the third floor, with the darkened canvases, sometimes collectively called the Blue Paintings, which were the first Mr. Ofili painted after moving to Trinidad in 2005. Here, he places his subjects even more deeply in the tropics, a locale already predicted in the red-black-green Marcus Garvey works, while also discarding the dots, glitter, map pins and dung. It was time to move on.
On the show’s final floor, which culminates in several new paintings, riotous color returns and a final surprise awaits: looming gallery walls painted with a lush jungle in spreading violets and pale pinks. Across this ravishing expanse, nine paintings proceed from 2007 to 2014, indicating an artist growing steadily while inspired by precedents that include Gauguin and the Symbolists, Picasso in his Blue Period, Matisse, Art Nouveau and the Color Field painters and Ovid.
Building on a version of stain painting and mostly depicting couples, these works start out simply with flat blazing color and move toward mosaiclike complexity. In “Ovid-Desire,” a creature in a diaphanous gown swoons in her partner’s arms on a pink-and-black dance floor. In “Frogs in the Shade,” bright trees cast leaf patterns on the skin on the bodies of a nude couple, a reclining male entranced by the woman dancing before him.
These paintings form an impressive demonstration of headlong development, but they suggest an artist still in transition, moving toward a promising future, which is exactly where Mr. Ofili, at 46, should be right now.