chris ofili: tate britain

[Chris Ofili: Afrodizzia (2nd version) 1996 via Tate]

Chris Ofili is perhaps best known as an artist associated with controversy. In 1998, he was awarded the Turner Prize for a series of works that challenged the conventions of paintings through encrusting canvases with elephant dung; whilst his painting of a black Madonna prompted outrange when it was first shown at the Brooklyn Museum a year later. But today, with a midcareer retrospective recently opening at Tate Britain, Ofili no longer seems quite so radical. The challenges he mounted to the stereotypes of black culture; his provocative references to pornography, gangsta rap and blaxploitation; and even his characteristic use of blobs of dung to embellish his canvases no longer look like highly controversial, or even particularly distinctive moves. Nevertheless, there is still a huge amount of enjoyment to be derived from this glorious journey through Ofili’s career from the early 1990s to the present day.

Bursting with sparkly exuberance, Ofili’s early works are a real treat, incorporating glitter, beads, sequins, map-pins and magazine cutouts in swirling rainbow patterns. These bejeweled canvases range from the mystical and mysterious to the noisy and frenetic: some demonstrate a buoyant sense of humour in their lively interrogation of racial stereotypes; whilst others, like the affecting No Woman No Cry – Ofili’s response to the murder of Stephen Lawrence – are poignantly beautiful and emotive.

Yet in the tension between form and content that exists in these works, it is the form that tends to grab the attention. Perhaps most immediately arresting is Ofili’s use of colour, the canvases awash with emerald green, heady crimson, vibrant yellow, tropical turquoise, hot pink and deepest midnight blue. Gaudy but gorgeous, these works seem first and foremost an optimistic celebration of the sensual and erotic pleasures of art: in Afro Love and Unity a couple embrace beneath an exploding star; whilst in the companion piece, Afro Sunset they appear entwined together amongst an exotic jungle canopy, in attitudes reminiscent of a Klimt painting. Not all of the works in this exhibition are so flamboyant: yet the quieter, small-scale watercolour and pencil representations of sultry female figures, faces, elegant birds and exotic flowers, which for me were an unexpected highlight of this exhibition, are also invested with a similar sense of vitality. Indeed, even the installation The Upper Room, which forms the centerpiece of this show - a hushed, half-lit chapel-like space, reached through an echoing corridor, in which 13 magnificent panels depicting a golden monkey-god in the jewel tones of stained-glass windows are ranged like the solemn figures of the Last Supper – seems less a comment on religion and its iconography, and more of a purely sensual experience.

Indeed, only in the final pair of rooms, does this exhibition become more ambiguous. Here, the mood shifts away from joyful opulence: this selection of the artist's more recent works moves away from rich texture and embellishment, instead offering us a series of flat canvases. In the first of these rooms, the paintings are entirely blue –a sombre, pared-down palette of twilight, indigo and ultramarine, broken only by the shapes of half-glimpsed shadowy figures. Meanwhile, in the second room, Ofili dispenses with the na├»ve style of his earlier works altogether in favour of a more highly stylized approach, as unearthly figures appear and disappear amongst hard-edged blocks of starkly crude colour: a venomously purple female nude accepts an orange glass from the hand of an unseen man; a dark gothic figure appears to be either vomiting or inhaling a stream of acid-yellow banana shapes. Yet although they may raise more questions, these are distinctly uncomfortable paintings, devoid of the joyful exuberance of Ofili’s earlier works – and unfortunately, without this sense of vibrant aesthetic pleasure, they simply just aren’t as much fun.

Chris Ofili will be showing at Tate Britain until 16 May 2010.


[Both images: Chris Ofili, The Upper Room 1999-2002 via Tate]

2 comments:

31 January 2010 at 18:07 Jodi said...

so beautiful and such an amazing story