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Modernist Blues:
Chris Ofili’s The Blue Rider Extended Remix

At the Kestner Gesellschaft in Hanover, London-based artist Chris Ofili conjures up Modernist utopias and German Expressionism – in brilliantly beautiful blue paintings. The Deutsche Bank Collection has loaned one of its latest acquisitions from the series to the show. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf met with the star of the "Young British Artists" and spoke to him about Kandinsky, Biblical sinners, African art, and Led Zeppelin.

"Siren Three", 2005
Courtesy Chris Ofili - Afroco & Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin

©Chris Ofili

His "Black Madonnas" decorated with elephant dung not only brought him the renowned Turner Prize in 1998, but also a real-life scandal. In 1999, mayor of New York Rudi Giuliani was so incensed by Chris Ofili’s painting Virgin Mary, which combined collaged images from Blaxploitation films with female genitals, that he cut funding to the Brooklyn Museum, where the painting was presented in the legendary group show Sensation. Since that time, the British artist of Nigerian descent has had countless exhibitions; in 2003, he was celebrated for his spectacular installation Within Reach at the Venice Biennale.

This summer, the Kestner Gesellschaft in Hanover is showing Chris Ofili’s first institutional exhibition in Germany. The Blue Rider Extended Remix awakens traditions of European Modernism; its luminous blue paintings read like a contemporary homage to the Blue Rider artists and their ideas of unity. Ofili’s paintings reflect the synthesis of all art forms that Wassily Kandinsky, Gabriele Münter, and Franz Marc demanded at the beginning of the 20th century – ranging from high to folk art and including figuration, abstraction, Expressionism, Spiritualism, painting, music, and theater. At the same time, the works in exclusively blue and silver hues, reminiscent of a dark, nocturnal ocean blue and a phosphorescent tropical moonlight, bring to mind Ofili’s new home in Trinidad and Tobago. Yet his melancholically beautiful paradises are populated by saints, Biblical sinners, and seductive goddesses – and are every bit as questionable as the idealizing, exotic yearning for the faraway to be found in European Expressionism.

Chris Ofili
©George Ikonomopoulos /TO VIMA

Oliver Koerner von Gustorf: Your exhibition Blue Rider Extended Remix seems to address a whole bunch of modernist myths: the interest of Expressionist artists in "primitive" art and "non-Western" art forms, the desire to discover an unspoiled paradise hidden within the "uncivilized" world, the idea of producing art in some kind of vanguard community far away from the art scene in the big cities. While these notions still seem to be tempting in a very romantic way, we are aware of the problematic nature of European "primitivism." How does your work deal with this antagonism?

"Blue Moon", 2005 / "Silver Moon", 2005
Courtesy: Chris Ofili - Afroco & Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin
©Chris Ofili

Chris Ofili: What I’m investigating right now is European painting. You see, a lot of commentary on my work has been about African tradition in painting, whereas I’ve always had a strong interest in European painting. Being of African descent, people still focus on me – where my origins and interests might lie. I felt that this would be the opportunity to be quite explicit about what my interests are – it is a group of European painters, very European individuals. I wanted to use them as a springboard for my interest in spiritualism, abstraction, funny kinds of figurations. I also have a kind of relationship to Germany as well, to German traditions. The Blue Rider artists made some unbelievable paintings – kind of otherworldly. What I like is that in some ways these artists were marginalized – as a group, people really didn’t pay that much interest to them. In a way, art attracts so much attention nowadays. I live in Trinidad, away from the center. That allows me to operate in a way that is individual. I think that’s what is needed these days. There is so much attention, and information travels so quickly…

But you are not a new 21st-century Gauguin, are you?

[Laughs] No, those days are over.

People usually talk more about the content in your paintings and less about how they’re made. The thing that stands out most about your Blue Rider series are the blue parts. How do you achieve this degree of luminosity?

Some of the very blue ones are quite dark, but they are actually painted on a silver ground. The first color is silver. So you always get this very strong kind of light coming out from behind the blue – almost like moonlight, a silvery moonlight. Many of the old masters began very dark paintings with a light background, and then gradually made them darker. It’s that same approach of building darkness from light. So my painting starts off very, very pale and then proceeds towards darkness. In the end, you get the feeling that the light is coming from within. I paint the canvas with silver water-based paint and then I work on top of that with oil paint, ordinary, good-quality materials. I paint with a brush, and sometimes I spray turpentine on the wet paint to give it more fluidity. On Thirty Pieces of Silver, you’ve got this top corner with that blue "Starry Night-Effect."

"Thirty Pieces of Silver", 2005
Courtesy: Chris Ofili- Afroco & Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin
Copyright: Chris Ofili

Is it possible that your Blue Rider series looks back to German Expressionism in the same "exotic" way as the Expressionists were looking at non-Western Art?

Potentially, yes, if you’re talking about looking in an art history book and saying hey, I like this, or this means this and this means that. Yes, in a kind of pedestrian and touristy way. I hope I am not doing the same harm the Expressionists did.

Do you make sketches or construct the painting? Or do you paint directly onto the canvas?

I work pretty much directly, just throwing it right onto the canvas. But with Thirty Pieces of Silver, I also worked from a live model. Sometimes the more classical, traditional things get lost in contemporary art. I thought this would be a good opportunity to bring that back in and see if that can still be interesting today, working directly from the model. I think I will continue.

Where does the orchestra in Thirty Pieces of Silver actually come from? It looks Moroccan somehow.

Yeah, it actually comes from a postcard that my wife sent me when she was in Morocco. But the painting is essentially a depiction of the last days of Judas. In the Bible, he hangs himself after betraying Christ with a kiss. But in this painting he goes to a strip club. The stripper is Salome, and the band is a very high-class, classical Moroccan band. That’s him giving away his thirty pieces of silver. So in a way the painting is about relinquishing your guilt and your riches.

At the same time, the painting has a very rhythmical, almost musical aura. The encounter with Arnold Schoenberg’s compositions was a crucial experience for Kandinsky and led him to his ideas concerning a non-representational art that purely visualizes music and emotions. In articles and interviews, you’ve mentioned that music plays a major role in your painting.

Egyptian Blue 2004-2005
Deutsche Bank Collection
Courtesy Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin
©Chris Ofili

I am really trying to expand my understanding of music right now. I was listening to Led Zeppelin last night with my galerist Bruno Brunet and it was absolutely fantastic! I’m really into Hip Hop. It completely opens you up when you say you’re not going to focus only on one type of music, but on anything you think is good. I think this happened with this body of work. I don’t want to focus only on this one type of art anymore, I want to be much more open in my interests. And hearing Led Zeppelin last night was like a funny kind of rebirth. You see, normally I would have said I am absolutely not interested in Led Zeppelin – that’s not my culture.

Hello! You grew up in England. Haven’t you’ve been forced to listen to Led Zeppelin?

No. You see those guys in Led Zeppelin gear and you say to yourself: this is not my taste. But when you hear it, when you actually just engage in what it is, regardless of the culture that it represents, it’s quite liberating. I see music as a pure form of expression similar to painting, which is a pure, mystical form of expression. The two fuel each other. The ways the ears and the eyes are organized in the brain are very close together; they can also momentarily get dislodged. There’s this painting over there called The Blue Riders’ Feedback, and it almost enters your eyes, where you get this harsh light, this harsh reflection – a feedback.

Blue Rider's Feedback
Courtesy: Chris Ofili- Afroco & Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin
©Chris Ofili

So you listen to music while you’re painting.

Yeah, I’ve been listening to Nina Simone’s Album Four Women while working on my latest paintings. It is a collection of four albums and it is absolutely amazing – worth spending the money on. You get the real range of what she is about, the soul, the blues, almost to the point of poetry – and her incredible command of the piano. It gave me a lot of spirit and influenced the outcome of the new paintings. The paintings are not illustrating Nina’s music, that’s impossible. It was more about just having that "company" in the studio.

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