Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 27, 2015
Massimiliano Gioni Chris Ofili: Night and Day Exh. cat. New York: Skira Rizzoli in association with New Museum, 2014. 224 pp.; 140 color ills.; 8 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780847844562)
Exhibition schedule: New Museum, New York, October 29, 2014–February 1, 2015

Curated by Massimiliano Gioni at the New Museum in New York City, Chris Ofili: Night and Day was the title of the first retrospective of the contemporary British artist’s paintings, drawings, and sculptures to be shown in the United States. The accompanying exhibition catalogue’s visual and textual narratives provide a loosely chronological survey of Ofili’s most celebrated artworks, with each contributor highlighting particular influences and experiences in the artist’s life that have served as catalysts for his creative expression. These include: “Lush Life,” Gioni’s scene-setting introduction and curatorial contextualization; “Inspired by Ovid,” National Gallery of London curator Minna Moore Ede’s comprehensive account of Ofili’s response to a commission from the National Gallery themed on the Latin poet’s first-century epic work, Metamorphoses; “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Sting,” a detailed examination of Ofili’s paint handling, texturing, and collage-based techniques, presented by artist, curator, and academic Robert Storr; “Blue Black,” African American artist Glenn Ligon’s exploration of Ofili’s subtle and intricate use of shades of blue to convey melancholic or mysterious themes related to cultural identity, imagination, and spirituality; “Blue Devils,” lawyer and writer Matthew Ryder’s analysis of the way Ofili combines complex and challenging political and social-justice-related imagery with carnivalesque-style symbolism in his 2014 painting of the same name and selected earlier works; “Between Heaven and Hell: The Holy Virgin Mary at the Brooklyn Museum,” New Museum research fellow Alicia Ritson’s commentary on the various religious and aesthetic reactions to Ofili’s 1996 representation of the Holy Virgin as a black Madonna when first displayed in New York in the late 1990s; and “Within Reach: Tricolor/Jet-Black Epic,” a poetic response to Ofili’s installation for the 2003 British pavilion at the fiftieth Venice Biennale and other works using a similar red, green, and black color palette, written by fellow contemporary British artist (and former Turner Prize nominee) Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.

Thematically, the catalogue’s overall content focuses strongly on three broad themes. First, Ofili’s visual representations of the social and cultural politics of “race” and racism are discussed—particularly in reference to early works such as Afrodizzia (1996) and the striking figurative painting No Woman, No Cry (1998). The latter work of a grieving woman shedding a collage of tears is given close attention because of its historical significance as a tribute piece created in memory of the black British teenager Stephen Lawrence, who was brutally murdered in 1993 and whose name later became synonymous with a public inquiry into the Metropolitan Police’s institutionally racist mishandling of the case. Ofili’s aesthetic responsiveness to the power and poignancy of nature and physical landscapes is another important feature of his artistry and is most prominent in several of his Trinidad-themed paintings, from Iscariot Blues (2006), Lover’s Rock—Guilt (2007), and Strangers from Paradise (2007–8) through to the more mythopoetic settings of The Healer (2008) and Death and the Roses (2009). The third thematic strand of the critique considers the multi-referentiality of Ofili’s oeuvre as an artist who draws inspiration from artists from different genres and eras. One of the most significant examples of this is his Ovid paintings (ca. 2010–12), which reinterpret three sixteenth-century Italian Renaissance masterpieces by Titian—Diana and Actaeon (1556–59), Diana and Callisto (1556–59), and The Death of Actaeon (ca. 1559–75)—and, in turn, echo themes from the Metamorphoses.

In his opening essay, Gioni comments on Ofili’s portfolio by introducing two adjectives commonly associated with the artist’s work: controversy and musicality (14). The former alludes to the debates that have surrounded Ofili’s reception in the United States: most notably the public protests and acts of vandalism that accompanied the exhibiting of his painting The Holy Virgin Mary during Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (October 2, 1999–January 9, 2000). Ofili’s black Madonna, painted in acrylics on linen and covered with glitter and paper collage, is presented in a shimmering blue robe that deliberately exposes the right breast and nipple. A scattering of pornographic magazine cuttings showing photographs of bare buttocks and female genitalia cover parts of the yellow, amber, and gold background, with one prominently centered on the Virgin’s face to obscure the nose area. On December 16, 1999, a seventy-two-year-old Catholic man, Dennis Heiner, was arrested for defacing the canvas with white paint. Although the painting was successfully restored and continued to be shown, it was re-displayed behind a protective screen closely guarded by museum attendants and armed police officers for the remainder of the exhibition (Ritson, 163–81).

To a lesser extent, the term “controversy” also relates to Ofili’s notoriety as an artist known, or remembered, for regularly (and some might say “irreverently”) fixing dried orbs of elephant dung to canvases, as well as positioning them as spherical stands upon which works are placed to transform them from two-dimensional artworks into more complex three-dimensional mixed-media sculptures (adding to its potentially troublesome qualities, The Holy Virgin Mary utilized both techniques). Although Gioni refers to visual musicality, this descriptor is explored in detail via Storr’s characterization of Ofili as an artist who applies acrylics, oils, and resins to surfaces like a virtuoso musician, orchestrating compositions with the equivalent rhapsodic flair of a jazz legend. Storr’s descriptions about color are laced with musical metaphors, likening the appeal of Ofili’s visual storytelling and paint handling to the “throbbing staccato” rhythms and “alternating dissonant and harmonic cultural chords” performed in a moving and melancholic blue note instrumentation (62–63).

One of the most thought-provoking catalogue narratives is Ligon’s “Blue Black,” which discusses the challenges Ofili has faced (and continues to face) in attempting to transition from centralizing concerns about identity, “race,” and social exclusion toward more nuanced and entangled representations focused on cultural syncretism, creolization, and hybridity. Ligon draws important visual and thematic comparisons between the subtle shades of blue and black used in Ofili’s Blue Devils (2014) and the “mood indigo” of the installation Concerto in Black and Blue (2002) by David Hammons—helping to further contextualize and integrate his artworks into a timeline of contemporary-art reference points with which U.S. and wider international audiences might be more familiar (87). In concluding his piece, Ligon spotlights the significance of Ofili’s relocation to Trinidad in 2005 as a move that enabled the “parameters of black possibility” to be extended (90)—not only in terms of the scope of topics and themes addressed in his creations, but also in the way he (as a British artist of Nigerian descent) could escape the identico-political pigeonholing and, to use a phrase from Eddie Chambers’s Black Artists in British Art, “accentuated inscribing of ethnicity” often encountered by contemporary black British artists of the African and Asian diaspora(s) in Europe (Eddie Chambers, Black Artists in British Art: A History Since the 1950s, London: I. B. Tauris, 2014, 37).

Because Night and Day is a titular referencing of the polarized symbolism that regularly features in Ofili’s work, several of the contributors have explored this in their texts. For example, Gioni, Storr, Ligon, and Ritson discuss Ofili’s contrasting representations of the sacred and the pure as opposed to the idolatrous, profane, and debased—prompting Gioni to comment on the artist’s choice of materials as “an odd combination of valuable and humble, sacred and profane—diamonds and shit, one might say” (11). The linking of these subjects to the artist’s diverse techniques of application provokes Storr to refer to a “riot of aesthetic and emotional contradictions, of attraction and repulsion, of decorative appeal and nauseating excess, which are the crux of the grotesque” in contrast to the subtle, calming scenes that evoke a “bluesy, cocktail lounge ambience” (61). Gioni and Ritson illuminate the way Ofili’s vertical and horizontal oscillations embrace the breadth and diversity of the international art world, from “high art” and classical aestheticism to “popular culture” and avant-garde experimentation, while also analyzing Ofili’s scholarly and academic figurations aligned with his more impromptu, free-flowing abstract expressionism.

Audiences for Ofili’s artwork need to be aware that he was raised in a community of immigrants from different parts of the world, has himself undergone his own process of migration from Britain to Trinidad, and is steeped in the process of expressing understandings about history, mobility, globalization, and cultural interdependencies that cross borders, oceans, and continents. This history of multiple migrations has encouraged Ofili to develop globally unbounded perspectives on ways to visualise complex notions of identity and belonging that are diasporic in dimension. For this reason, the inclusion of an additional section examining the transmigratory and diasporic aspects of Ofili’s biography—approached from a cultural geography perspective, as exemplified in Paul Goodwin’s scholarship (see, for example, Paul Goodwin, “New Diasporic Voices,” in Lizzie Carey-Thomas, ed., Migrations: Journeys into British Art, London: Tate Publishing, 2012, 92–97)—would have added a further layer to this otherwise substantial and timely retrospective of the artist’s work.

Carol Ann Dixon
PhD, Department of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom