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If you asked a New York museum-goer to free associate with the name Chris Ofili, the answer would probably include “elephant dung”, or “dung Virgin”, or possibly “dung-splattered”. Those phrases have stuck to Ofili’s reputation since 1999, when New York’s then mayor Rudolph Giuliani led a campaign of orchestrated outrage against the Brooklyn Museum for including Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary” in the show Sensation.
That painting is back in the city, still glorious, still a black Madonna bedecked with images from porn magazines and an avocado-sized lump of, yes, dried elephant dung. Giuliani was back recently, too, manning a different barricade this time, in front of the Metropolitan Opera. He was protesting against John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer, which he and others accuse of glorifying terrorism. The noise around the opera and the quiet that has greeted the New Museum’s ravishing three-floor Ofili retrospective make it clear how opportunistic and fleeting outrage can be. Meanwhile, the art soldiers on.
What got lost during the kerfuffle 15 years ago and has now become blazingly clear is that Ofili is less a shock manipulator than a virtuoso of sensuous play. The New Museum exhibition opens with “Afromuses”, watercolour portraits of imaginary people who swim out of his unconscious into a darkened gallery. Black women with elaborately sculpted hair, dangly earrings and beaded necklaces anoint their lips with bright red or pink, their eyes with gooey mascara. They are not just women of colour, but women in colour, blazing and proud. “Exercises in beauty,” the artist has called these works, making an elusive quality sound like a technical skill. “There’s no deep meaning – or even shallow meaning – to them,” he once told me. “It’s just about trying to make something attractive, and to speak about the beauty of black people as individuals and as a collective.”
Ofili’s whole oeuvre is really an exercise in beauty. He doesn’t avoid the ugly fights over race, sex, politics, religion, but he cushions these issues in the plushness of surface, the seductions of light. Maybe that’s why the controversy over the “The Holy Virgin Mary” eventually went away: because all you have to do is look past the flesh and faeces to the spirit that animates her. She presides over a gallery filled with the glittering canvases that brought Ofili to fame in the 1990s. No reproduction – not even those in the handsome catalogue – can capture the riot of texture that explodes from the walls. In the works from that period, globs of elephant dung materialise in surprising ways: they support tall canvases like a breakfront’s feet, or are inscribed with titles, one word per turd (“Pimpin’ ” . . . “Ain’t” . . . “Easy”). One patty forms the Madonna’s breast, another sprouts from a superhero’s abdomen. Still more mingle with a crowd of motley materials: glitter, pins, collaged photos and layer upon layer upon layer of paint.
These pictures sizzle and pop. They flirt with vulgarity but commit to sublimity. Psychedelic mind-meld meets rococo excess. Religious worship feeds on crude blaxploitation. Rappers and balloon-breasted whores share the walls with a monkey and a giant smiling penis. Ofili’s uneasiness with gender stereotypes, especially those that permeate hip-hop culture, blooms into gorgeous monuments to mixed feelings.
Racial politics bubble to the surface in “No Woman No Cry”, a portrait of Doreen Lawrence, whose son, Stephen, was murdered in a racist attack in south London in 1993. Ofili bestows on her the grandeur of a Byzantine saint encircled by a nimbus of gold. Each of her teardrops contains a tiny photo of her martyred boy. She is an icon of sorrow.
Proceeding through the show can feel like driving through a series of tunnels on a sunny day – dazzling stretches alternate with patches of sudden gloom. Ofili moved from London to Trinidad in 2005, a change that jolted his style from glittery exuberance to melancholic reverie. Instead of standard-issue Caribbean glare, he gives us the rapid fade to tropical night. In one dim gallery, a suite of black-and-indigo paintings forces you to keep shifting position in order to make out their secrets. The reward for persistence is a glimpse of some puzzling and disturbing scene – in “Iscariot Blues”, for instance, a shadowy figure hangs from the gallows beneath an arbour of drooping vegetation. Near the dangling corpse, two musicians sit on a bridge and keep playing, unperturbed by violent death. The scene is spooky and suggestive, a study in darkness with unfathomable psychic depth.
These midnight paintings challenge viewers to stare and invite them to wonder. We start to feel like unreliable witnesses, trying to discern the drama, unsure of what it means. “Blue Devils” intimates a clump of shadows – a black man surrounded by police officers, one in a constable’s cap, another in riot gear. Is this an innocent man being stopped and frisked, Jesus arrested by Roman soldiers, or some other form of oppression? Violence mixes with mystery.
Upstairs, darkness falls away. The walls are covered in a plum-coloured wash that glows, though not powerfully enough to compete with the paintings’ explosive tints and shimmying shapes. The subject matter comes from Ovid, with Matisse, Hockney, Bonnard and Gauguin all bubbling away in Ofili’s cauldron of references. And yet the gallery also rewards the uninformed glance with startling bursts of grace. In “Ovid-Actaeon”, three sun-yellow figures (two nymphs and a centaur) dance, forming a circle of limbs on a field of royal purple. Matisse and Picasso flit through the atmosphere but art-historical lineage is hardly the point. Rather, Ofili gets his strength from a fearless embrace of decorative brilliance. His pictures are filled with daylight, and their intoxicating combination of terror and joy makes you want to dip your finger in the coruscating pigment and savour those potent hues.
‘Chris Ofili: Night and Day’, New Museum, New York, to January 25 2015, newmuseum.org
Slideshow photographs: Courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner Gallery, and Victoria Miro Gallery