One of Today’s Best Painters
Chris Ofili Lights up the New Museum

Chris Ofili’s scandal-ridden Holy Virgin Mary is back in New York. When the painting was presented at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, there was a storm of protest. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani defamed it as “sick stuff” and announced that the city was going to cut off funding to the museum. At that time, the work was shown in the group show Sensation. Now Holy Virgin Mary is on view in a very different, less explosive context – the large Ofili retrospective at the New Museum. It is part of a body of work that is a true sensation not due to to its provocative content, but on account of its incredible visual richness. The show, titled Night and Day, celebrates painting. Star art critic Jerry Saltz found the exhibition “breathtaking.” It is sensual and spiritual at the same time.

The exhibition, presented in chronological order by the curator Massimiliano Gioni, fills three floors of the museum. It begins on the second floor with Ofili’s psychedelic paintings executed during his years in London. Thousands of dots, plastic beads, glitter, and cutout magazine pictures cover the surfaces of the works. He processes influences from Hip-Hop culture just as naturally as elements of cave painting from Zimbabwe. He resurrects Rodin’s Thinker in the guise of a black stripper.

The object-like presence of the paintings is enhanced by their presentation. They not only hang on the wall, but stand on small plinths made of elephant dung covered with synthetic resin. When the artist discovered the material during an art workshop in Zimbabwe in 1991, he became fascinated with its round shape and began using it in his artistic work. He does so in his painting of the Mother of God. That Ofili, who was once an altar boy, is not being blasphemous in his use of this material is made crystal clear by No Woman, No Cry. This painting also shows a woman who has lost her son, and it is resting on elephant dung. Ofili created it as an homage to Doreen Lawrence. Her son Stephen was the victim of a racially motivated murder, and she had to fight for years to get the perpetrators convicted. Her tears consist of collaged photos of her stabbed son. The touching picture was part of the exhibition for which Ofili became the first black artist to be awarded the Turner Prize.

While he labors on some of his paintings for years, he executed each of his Afro Muses (1995 – 2005) in a single step. Ninety watercolors from this series, with which Ofili is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, are hanging in the New Museum on a large, brown-colored wall. They show proud women whose brightly colored dress looks just as fantastic as their hairdos. The painter imbues his Afro Muses with a majestic aura which hitherto in art history had been granted only to white female rulers.

When you enter the exhibition rooms on the third floor, you realize how radically Ofili’s oeuvre has changed since 2005, the year he and his family settled on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. While your eyes first have to get used to the dim light, it still is not easy to recognize what is on these canvases. “Some of the very blue ones are quite dark, but they are actually painted on a silver ground,” said the artist in an interview with ArtMag. “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.” Nine of these paintings are presented in architecture inspired by Mark Rothko’s chapel in Houston. They show melancholically beautiful paradises, inhabited by saints, Biblical sinners and seductive goddesses. But Ofili also deals with social issues. Blue Devils, for example, shows police brutality directed toward black people.

After these nighttime, almost monochrome scenes, the paintings on the fourth floor seem to shine even more intensely. Perhaps the most powerful room of the exhibition can be found on this floor. On walls painted with violet blossoms, ferns, and branches, a selection of Ofili’s most recent works is on exhibit. The artist masterfully processes influences from Matisse, Gauguin, and Picasso into complex and beautiful compositions that are distinctly his own. Lime Bar (2014) shows a scene from a film club that his friend Peter Doig called into being in Port of Spain. Now and then Ofili works as a barman there. In the picture, he is standing behind the bar wearing a white shirt and a black bowtie, while in the foreground a couple is sipping martinis. It is a sympathetically modest self-portrait by one of today’s best painters.
Achim Drucks

Chris Ofili: Day and Night
Until January 25, 2015
New Museum, New York