terça-feira, 26 de junho de 2012


The art world no longer wonders what to make of Chris Ofili's dung-pocked canvasses. Instead, they wonder what he will make next. Melissa Goldstein surveys the work of a controversial artist in mid-career ...
The achievement is formidable: the Tate Britain has mounted the most extensive exhibition of Chris Ofili’s work to date, amid-career retrospective of the Turner-Prize-winner. It features over 40 paintings, including the artist’s most recent creations direct from his studio in Trinidad. But the truly extraordinary moment came during a press preview on January 25th, as the show's chief curator, Judith Nesbitt, catalogued the exhibition’s highlights. In measured tones, her cut-glass British voice resounded in the Tate’s hallowed rooms: “Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy”...“Shithead”...“7 Bitches Tossing Their Pussies Before the Divine Dung” she announced. Chris OfiliThe scene fits neatly with the themes of profanity and humour that some see as central to the Manchester-born artist’s most recognisable work. Ofili's highly decorative mixed-media pieces often incorporate animal excrement, gangster-rap iconography and pornographic collage in traditionally decorative and unexpectedly beautiful ways. As one of the few black men attending the Chelsea School of Art in the late 1980s, Ofili aimed to represent the black experience in his paintings. A stylistic turning point came during an artists’ workshop in Zimbabwe. As he was casting about for a gesture that would unite his work with the landscape, Ofili settled upon a solution that was both literal and, he admits, “crass”: he placed elephant dung directly on the canvas. Ofili sought to present viewers with an aesthetic dilemma, between repulsion at the excrement and attraction to the painted beauty surrounding it. The dried faeces became his trademark, along with an orgy of other materials—glitter, resin, sequins and paint, meticulously applied in the manner of henna designs. Though Ofili's subjects are flat and occasionally cartoonish, the paintings are heavily patterned and textured, some with a surprising incandescence. His canvasses were designed to rest on the ground, neatly propped on balls of elephant dung pierced with map pins. Chris OfiliThis complex dichotomy of brutal-yet-beautiful, or odious-yet-luminescent, can be seen throughout Ofili’s oeuvre: it’s part of his sly comic commentary on blaxploitation, such as with “The Adoration of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars”; it works its way into his study of a prostitute, as with “Blossom”, and his meditation on religion, “The Holy Virgin Mary”. That last work is Ofili’s most controversial, for the way it depicts a black Mary flanked by collaged images of female genitalia, propped on elephant dung. The painting launched a pageant of criticism led largely by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani when it was shown at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999 as part of the "Sensation" exhibition of Young British Artists. "As an altar boy, I was confused by the idea of a holy Virgin Mary giving birth to a young boy," he said in defense of his work at the time. "Now when I go to the National Gallery and see paintings of the Virgin Mary, I see how sexually charged they are. Mine is simply a hip-hop version." The shock has long since faded, but the awe has not. A centrepiece of the show at the Tate, “The Upper Room” (1999-2002, pictured above), is housed in a chapel-like structure designed by the architect David Adjaye. Though the circumstances of its acquisition were controversial (Ofili was a member of the Tate’s board of trustees at the time), its 13 luminous panels are a vision to behold. It is Ofili’s version of “The Last Supper”, with rhesus macaque monkeys rendered in a rainbow of embellishment standing in for the apostles, as a gold-hued simian Christ-figure presides over them, anointed with a gilded dung ball. Blasphemy never sparkled so seductively. Ofili's newer works are a departure. Gone is the dizzying ornamentation that created an illusion of depth. In its place are figurative, often monochromatic canvasses covered with paint alone. The effect is less Dylan goes electric than Dylan goes soft rock. His recent “blue period” pieces—paintings done entirely in slightly-varying hues of deep blue—are the most evocative. For example, “Iscariot Blues” depicts two musicians flanked by a hanging effigy of Judas, its palette intended to simulate the disorienting effect of near-darkness (pictured above). But it’s the newest works—such as “Confessions (Lady Chancellor)”, in which a stylised woman reaches for a cocktail, and “The Healer” (pictured below), featuring a wizened man vomiting a yellow substance in a composition that looks borrowed from Georgia O’Keefe—that leave us puzzled. This is perhaps because these paintings seem to resemble things we’ve seen before, quite possibly at Burning Man. They are less imaginative, and less visually interesting, too. Chris OfiliOfili’s obsessively layered kaleidoscopic works tell stories. In comparison, these newer, plainer canvasses are mute. The artist has explained that his “tolerance for neutral beauty has grown”. Jackie Wullschlager, writing in theFinancial Times, says Ofili is mimicking the style of the artist's good friend Peter Doig. But Ofili's problem goes beyond an unhealthy reverence for another painter's work, Wullschlager argues. "Having devised a visual aesthetic for a key moment in the 1990s when black culture became visible and assertive," she writes, "he created works which so persuasively, even iconically, fixed the historical instant that it is difficult for him to develop beyond them." Existential hurdles aside, any artist facing canonisation at mid-career can be forgiven for rebelling, or even for being restless. But issues of race, politics and religion are far more provocative when viewed through Ofili’s psychedelic glasses; we should hope he hasn't cast aside those lenses for good. Chris Ofili” is on view at the Tate Britain through May 16th 2010. 

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