That great art critic Rudolph Giuliani, then moonlighting as mayor of New York, first made Chris Ofili famous in America when, in 1999, he tried to evict the Brooklyn Museum for displaying the artist’s magnificent Holy Virgin Mary, a painting that Rudy felt sullied its religious subject matter with sexual imagery. Ofili’s blasphemous Black Madonna was one of a series of sparkling works combining such materials as beaded oil paint, map pins, collaged porn images, and elephant dung, a series that won him Britain’s Turner Prize in 1998. His new work—compiled in “Devil’s Pie,” Ofili’s solo exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery—is no less perverse or disturbingly beautiful.
Dazzlingly studded with ornament, at once easy and erudite, the dung paintings re-imagined what a painting could be; they threw open a door to the future. One of the first things I noticed about the new canvases was their lack of texture: They are smooth oils, flat as old-school modernist masterpieces. Commenting on his recent work in the fall issue of Bomb magazine, Ofili says: “Often I look at my paintings and I don’t know if they feel like the present day, if the time that I’m living in now is actually the time that I’m painting.” Perhaps that’s because the canvases—and sculptures—at Zwirner suck so much marrow from the bones of the past. They borrow from Gauguin’s Polynesian paintings, Matisse’s sinuous lines, as well as from the early-20th-century Blue Rider group’s expressionist coloring. And Ofili continues to draw on the African art and culture that have always inspired him.
If he has trouble locating the work in time, he has no problem with place. A number of years ago, he moved from his native Britain to Trinidad—and this work is redolent of the tropics. With its two musicians playing parang on a porch next to a naked man hung by the neck from a gibbet, Iscariot Blues (2007), for instance, is one of two extraordinary pictures here that capture the glowing indigo tones of a Caribbean night. It’s a large picture, more than nine feet by six feet, and yet the subtle play of purple and violet figures against the dark blue atmosphere force one to stand close in order to discern the imagery. Both of the blue paintings magnetically pull you toward them; they are seductive tours de force.
Not so the other large pictures on view, which blare loud colors and almost garishly graphic designs. To my mind, what makes Ofili consistently perverse—aside from his habit of turning ostensibly religious subjects into lewd jokes—is that his paintings often flirt with being outright terrible. In the wrong hands, the hyperstylized retro look he employs in these new works could, with just a few bad choices, easily turn into overweening poster art, glib parodies fit only for suburban malls. Take Douen’s Dance, where an intertwined couple dances under the stars. It seems to be a simple image, but it jukes the viewer with the facility of its lines and its seemingly straightforward design: The flat planes of blue, orange, and yellow marking the edges of the dancers contrast with the brushy red and black night sky, lit by crudely drawn stars, energizing the surface. And, though he is angular and she curvilinear, one continuous line defines their torsos. Look again, and her head appears to be in two places at once: Where it is light blue, a single line delineates both the male and female faces, as though they are kissing; where her face is black, the couple dances forehead to forehead. All of these details keep the eye—and the intellect—off-balance. That the couple’s pose refers to actual dancers shot on Christmas Eve 1963 by the renowned African photographer Malick Sidibé only adds to the painting’s mojo.
Few artists today are willing to engage so forthrightly either with art history or with religion. Fortunately for him, Ofili tends to balance his considerable ambitions with lightheartedness. One is never sure whether, for example, in the multiple Lazarus paintings included here—such as Lazarus Rising, Silver Lazarus, or Lazarus (dream)—the title describes the dead man rising or his penis becoming erect, or both. I’m not entirely convinced Ofili has yet achieved the same light touch in his sculptures. The two largest efforts at Zwirner, each called Annunciation (2006), depict—in bronze—the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary grasping each other: in one version kneeling, in the other standing. In rough-hewn black matte (the less-processed state of bronze), the winged Gabriel resembles one of the bearded “afro heads” the artist frequently draws; golden and shiny, Mary has billowing, extravagant hair and voluptuous buttocks. As in some of the paintings, the artist skillfully manipulates twined figures, though bronze affords the dramatic collision of Mary’s polished purity and Gabriel’s coarse darkness; and again there is the drift from the spiritual to the sensual. But these sculptures, while striking to behold, feel more like earthbound objects, more literal than the witty and lofting explorations in the paintings.
“Devil’s Pie” might at first seem shockingly decorative. Eventually, I suspect, it will win over its critics with its Mephistophelian guile.