Rodin, Matisse, Gauguin, Kandinsky, Barnett Newman, Norman Lewis, David Hammons: these are just a handful of the names littering the plaques in the New Museum’s most recent exhibition, “Chris Ofili: Night and Day” (open Oct. 29 to Jan. 25). Yet Ofili’s paintings and sculptures seem to have come from anywhere but your Art History 101 textbook—at least at first glance.

With linen canvases covered in glitter, map pins, and (most notoriously) elephant poop, Ofili’s paintings look like pure outsider art. But it’s this tension of existing both inside and outside the Western art historical canon that makes Ofili’s work so compelling and so difficult to pin down (or write about).

Ofili’s overwhelming list of influences—along with big-name artists, Biblical texts, hip-hop music, Zimbabwean cave paintings, and Blaxplotation films—may spring from the artist’s own untethered history. Ofili was born in Manchester, England in 1968. His father is Nigerian and left his British family for his home country when Ofili was only a boy. Even though Ofili never saw his father again, African culture plays a huge role in his work. At the same time, Ofili is often lumped in with the Young British Artists (a group that includes Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin), but critics have agreed that his work stands apart from this movement. In 1998, he won the Turner Prize, but he was never able to establish himself in the American art scene—until now. “Night and Day” is Ofili’s first retrospective in the U.S., and it shows an artist who is so difficult to define because he is constantly in flux.

The exhibition’s title, “Night and Day,” is based off a Cole Porter song and emphasizes how much Ofili’s work has changed over the span of his career. His visual shifts are divided through three floors of the New Museum: Floor 2 is dedicated to Ofili’s canvases from the ’90s, Floor 3 holds a dark room showing “The Blue Rider” paintings created after Ofili moved to Trinidad in 2005, and Floor 4 displays his recent tropical canvases made in Trinidad.

The exhibition coincides with another big show in New York, “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs” at MoMA. Like the New Museum’s retrospective, MoMA’s Matisse exhibition shows a painter doing something entirely different from his early work that makes us rethink the possibilities of his medium. When Matisse got too old to paint, he began creating cut-outs, shapes cut from painted paper and pinned (yes, Matisse used pins too) into joyful compositions.

Ofili’s connection to Matisse runs even deeper. Similar to the French painter, who used wallpaper-like patterns to flatten his compositions (as in The Dessert: Harmony in Redeven when Ofili’s paintings reference depth (like through the windows in his “Ovid” series) colorful repeated shapes collapse the sense of space. In “Night and Day,” Ofili embraced decoration one step further than Matisse, painting a purple floral pattern directly on the walls of the New Museum.

Chris Ofili, Ovid-Desire, 2011–12. Oil, pastel, and charcoal on linen, 122 x 78 3/4 in (310 x 200 cm). © Chris Ofili. Courtesy the artist, David Zwirner, New York / London and Victoria Miro, London
Henri Matisse, The Dessert: Harmony in Red, 1908 / Wikipedia

In addition to their compositional style, Matisse and Ofili share an affection for fluid lines and swollen forms as well as an obvious obsession with color. The curvaceous nude inOfili’s Afro-paradise paintings, created in the colors of the pan-African flag, could be distant cousins of Matisse’s Blue Nude. Both exaggerated forms rest in the forest, seductive Amazonian women in their natural habitats. An important difference, however, is that Ofili’snude was painted by a black man.

Chris Ofili, Triple Beam Dreamer, 2001–02. Acrylic, oil, leaves, glitter, polyester resin, map pins,and elephant dung on linen, 72 x 120 in (182.8 x 304.8 cm). © Chris Ofili. Courtesy the artist, David Zwirner, New York / London and Victoria Miro, London
Henri Matisse, Blue Nude, 1907 / Wikipedia

European modern artists like Matisse and Gauguin were fascinated with “the exotic,” traveling to Northern Africa to depict and exploit the unfamiliar cultures in that region. AsMassimiliano Gioni, the curator of “Night and Day,” explained during the press preview, Ofili is interacting with modern art’s infatuation with the exotic, but as an artist of African descent, his depiction of Caribbean culture or “Afronirvana” comes from being an estranged member of the community going back to explore. Instead of an outsider looking in, his work almost seems to come out of Trinidad or Africa—his elephant poop (a controversial medium that he uses on many of his early paintings) certainly does.

Then again, Ofili is from England. When he depicts Trinidad, he strides the line between insider and outsider. “This is Ofili fashioning his own history of art,” writes art critic Jerry Saltz in his review of “Night and Day for Vulture, “One that shows Modernism’s warring mode of movements successively killing one another in order to live is less effective than letting all and any art live within one’s work.” By pulling from as many traditions and cultures as he can, Ofili is able to create his own, constantly changing history. This mythical space crosses boundaries of culture, history, identity, and medium and comes to life through Ofili’s art.

Chris Ofili, The Adoration of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars (ThirdVersion), 1998. Oil, acrylic, polyester resin, paper collage, glitter, map pins, and elephant dung on linen, 96 x 72 in (243.8 x 182.8 cm). © Chris Ofili. Courtesy the artist, David Zwirner,  New York / London and Victoria Miro, London


Chris Ofili, “Untitled (Afromuse),” 1995–2005. Watercolor and pencil on paper, 9 3/5 x 6 1/5 in (24.3 x 15.7 cm). © Chris Ofili. Courtesy the artist, David Zwirner, New York / London and Victoria Miro, London


Chris Ofili, Confession (Lady Chancellor), 2007. Oil on linen, 110 3/5 x 76 4/5 in (281 x 195.3 cm). © Chris Ofili. Courtesy the artist, David Zwirner, New York / London and Victoria Miro, London

“Chris Ofili: Night and Day” is open at the New Museum in New York from Oct. 29 to Jan. 25, 2015.


Chris Ofili: Night and Day review – an artist speaking proudly for himself
4 / 5 stars
Once notorious for his paintings encrusted with elephant ordure, Chris Ofili has blossomed into a complex, confident artist whose best work is his most recent – as a new exhibition at New York’s New Museum shows

Thursday 30 October 2014 16.43 EDT

Chris Ofili came to prominence very early in his career – so early, in fact, that it might have hurt him. Two years out of art school he had solo shows in New York and London; by 30, he had a Turner prize. Not long after that he had tabloid notoriety, all thanks to intricate, hedonistic paintings incorporating a certain kind of animal ordure.

There, too often, the story stops. You might need to go back as far as Frank Stella, whose striped canvases appeared at MoMA when he was just 23, to find another painter who hit so big so early, and who remains so thoroughly defined by his earliest work.

But there is much more to Ofili than his youthful trials, and his full flowering can be seen in Chris Ofili: Night and Day – a wide and illuminating survey, and the capstone for the best year New York’s New Museum has had since its reopening in 2007. In the years after it moved to its new home on the Bowery, an impractical stack of boxes with serious circulation problems, the Kunsthalle founded by the late, beloved Marcia Tucker lost its way with big, bad displays of commercially friendly white guys, plus a notorious show of one of its board member’s own collections. This year, though, under artistic director Massimiliano Gioni, the New Museum hit the bullseye again and again with first-rate exhibitions of Camille Henrot, Paweł Althamer and Laure Prouvost, plus an important summer show of Arab contemporary art that no other institution in New York could have mounted.

Ofili is the closest to a blue-chip artist among this year’s class. Yet Gioni and his young co-curators, Gary Carrion-Murayari and Margot Norton, have successfully recast his art in subtler and more somber tones, playing down the shock and pleasure and mapping out his long search to develop a painterly language.

This show should belatedly rebalance the public perception of Ofili’s art, which for two decades has been stuck on one leitmotif: the elephant dung he used in his early work. He first conceived of its artistic potential during study in Zimbabwe – although, as the artist and scholar Olu Oguibe has insisted, the country has no tradition of artistic use of animal excrement. Especially in the columns of Britain’s mangier newspapers, the dung figured as an easily broadcast “African” element of the art of a black British painter whose other interests, from William Blake to cave painting to Art Nouveau decorative arts, merited less attention.


In fact the dung was never Ofili’s great innovation, and many of his colorful young paintings, especially those depicting his comic book hero Captain Shit, come across today as one-note exercises. They are almost irresponsibly decadent, so ostentatious that they end up lacking force. For a painter starting out they’re not half bad, but if these were all he’d done, Ofili might stand today as just another of the media-confected Young British Artists: a designation Ofili hated, and whose relevance feels as minor today as that of Cool Britannia.

But two portraits from that era, both of black women, suggested Ofili’s true potential, and they hang (or rather stand, propped against the wall and standing on dung) side by side here in piercing apposition. One is No Woman, No Cry (1998), which depicts the mother of Stephen Lawrence, the young Londoner whose murder set off a two-decade odyssey to prosecute his killers and reform the “institutionally racist” Metropolitan police. The other is The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), in which the mother of God floats in a golden frame, wrapped in a shawl of blue and surrounded by clippings of bottoms from porn magazines.

It’s a big deal to see the latter painting again in New York, because the last time it showed up here, in 1999, then mayor Rudy Giuliani led a disgraceful campaign to censor Ofili and strip the Brooklyn Museum, which was exhibiting it, of city funding. The painting had to be shown behind a sheet of Plexiglas, which was not enough to stop a vandal with white paint. Allegedly it was the dung that upset Giuliani and friends, though one suspects it was really Ofili’s depiction of the Virgin as black. (No matter that western art history is full of dark-skinned Marys, such as the revered Black Madonna of Częstochowa, the holiest relic in Poland.)

Chris Ofili’s No Woman, No Cry. Photograph: Rosie Greenway/Getty Images
They make an extraordinary pair, these two women who’ve lost their sons. Both portraits consist of thousands of meticulous dots, inspired by Ofili’s exposure in the mid-90s to Aboriginal Australian painting, in which the distinction between representation and abstraction does not exist. Doreen (now Baroness) Lawrence appears with her eyes closed, dripping tears that are each affixed with a photo of Stephen’s face, and her necklace has an elephant-dung pendant studded with map pins: a broken black heart. Mary, by contrast, stares straight forward, with eyes as potent as her broad nose and full lips, and the dung hangs from her right breast as an emblem of her motherhood, but also her sexuality. The Holy Virgin Mary is individuated; she is a woman rather than an icon. No Woman, No Cry – the profounder painting, in my book – does the opposite. It makes blackness universal, and renders human love divine.

Ofili continued his use of dung and dots in his Edenic paintings of lovers in a tropical forest done in red, black and gold. But by 2005, when the artist moved to Trinidad, his art had undergone a substantial transformation – a transformation for the better. The shit was gone. So too was the color. A darkened gallery here, designed by the artist and indebted to Mark Rothko’s chapel in Houston, contains nine large, vertical-format paintings done in an extremely limited palette of navy blue and black. Your eyes need long minutes to adjust to the twilight, and to discern in Ofili’s low-contrast paintings scenes of lovers in tropical bungalows, but also soldiers on horseback and brutalized bodies hanging from trees. The most recent painting, Blue Devils (2014), depicts an act of police brutality but is almost impossible to fully perceive in Ofili’s low light. Night swallows us. Dreams are congruent with waking life, and nightmares too.
Indebted to Rothko … Blue Devils. Photograph: Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London
In the final gallery, against a lustrous royal purple mural of tropical foliage, Ofili wrestles with the tradition of western history painting, and with a modernist legacy that still underlies our visual vocabulary but also essentialized racial difference. Where his early work simply collided high and low, black and white, sacred and profane, art and shit, Ofili now makes more commanding, syncretic images – of the raising of Lazarus, or couples boogying on intricately patterned dance floors – that reject such dualism and thrill to mixing, creolisation, and promiscuity. They’re the work of a much more confident artist, building off the example of Gauguin, Matisse, and his friend and fellow adopted Trini, Peter Doig, but finally speaking only, proudly for himself.

The three riveting, challenging canvases that close the show, all completed this year, are set at Doig’s film club in Port of Spain, where Ofili has lately been tending the bar. Smoke rises from Martini glasses in sinuous curves that recall Mary’s blue shawl from two decades past; one reveller sprawls in a hammock whose stripes recall the starbursts of his 90s days. But these more difficult and enclosed compositions, incorporating overlaid text and using off-kilter scale, take a lot more work to unpack, and they feature something unprecedented in his art: self-portraiture, in the form of the artist mixing and serving drinks to shadow-strewn clients. Ofili is master and servant, visitor and regular, compere of an island sanctuary where day and night collapse into one. They have nothing to offer the tabloid minimizers who still imagine Ofili sweeping up at the London zoo. Their loss. Because these are the best paintings of his career.

Chris Ofili: Night and Day is at New Museum, New York until 25 January.



November 7, 2014 5:29 pm

Chris Ofili retrospective at the New Museum, New York

Despite the infamous elephant dung controversy, a new exhibition shows the British artist to be more than a shock merchant

If you asked a New York museum-goer to free associate with the name Chris Ofili, the answer would probably include “elephant dung”, or “dung Virgin”, or possibly “dung-splattered”. Those phrases have stuck to Ofili’s reputation since 1999, when New York’s then mayor Rudolph Giuliani led a campaign of orchestrated outrage against the Brooklyn Museum for including Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary” in the show Sensation.

That painting is back in the city, still glorious, still a black Madonna bedecked with images from porn magazines and an avocado-sized lump of, yes, dried elephant dung. Giuliani was back recently, too, manning a different barricade this time, in front of the Metropolitan Opera. He was protesting against John Adams’The Death of Klinghoffer , which he and others accuse of glorifying terrorism. The noise around the opera and the quiet that has greeted the New Museum’s ravishing three-floor Ofili retrospective make it clear how opportunistic and fleeting outrage can be. Meanwhile, the art soldiers on.

What got lost during the kerfuffle 15 years ago and has now become blazingly clear is that Ofili is less a shock manipulator than a virtuoso of sensuous play. The New Museum exhibition opens with “Afromuses”, watercolour portraits of imaginary people who swim out of his unconscious into a darkened gallery. Black women with elaborately sculpted hair, dangly earrings and beaded necklaces anoint their lips with bright red or pink, their eyes with gooey mascara. They are not just women of colour, but women in colour, blazing and proud. “Exercises in beauty,” the artist has called these works, making an elusive quality sound like a technical skill. “There’s no deep meaning – or even shallow meaning – to them,” he once told me. “It’s just about trying to make something attractive, and to speak about the beauty of black people as individuals and as a collective.”

Ofili’s whole oeuvre is really an exercise in beauty. He doesn’t avoid the ugly fights over race, sex, politics, religion, but he cushions these issues in the plushness of surface, the seductions of light. Maybe that’s why the controversy over the “The Holy Virgin Mary” eventually went away: because all you have to do is look past the flesh and faeces to the spirit that animates her. She presides over a gallery filled with the glittering canvases that brought Ofili to fame in the 1990s. No reproduction – not even those in the handsome catalogue – can capture the riot of texture that explodes from the walls. In the works from that period, globs of elephant dung materialise in surprising ways: they support tall canvases like a breakfront’s feet, or are inscribed with titles, one word per turd (“Pimpin’ ” . . . “Ain’t” . . . “Easy”). One patty forms the Madonna’s breast, another sprouts from a superhero’s abdomen. Still more mingle with a crowd of motley materials: glitter, pins, collaged photos and layer upon layer upon layer of paint.

These pictures sizzle and pop. They flirt with vulgarity but commit to sublimity. Psychedelic mind-meld meets rococo excess. Religious worship feeds on crude blaxploitation. Rappers and balloon-breasted whores share the walls with a monkey and a giant smiling penis. Ofili’s uneasiness with gender stereotypes, especially those that permeate hip-hop culture, blooms into gorgeous monuments to mixed feelings.

He doesn’t avoid ugly fights over race, sex, politics, but he cushions these issues in the plushness of surface

Racial politics bubble to the surface in “No Woman No Cry”, a portrait of Doreen Lawrence, whose son, Stephen, was murdered in a racist attack in south London in 1993. Ofili bestows on her the grandeur of a Byzantine saint encircled by a nimbus of gold. Each of her teardrops contains a tiny photo of her martyred boy. She is an icon of sorrow.

Proceeding through the show can feel like driving through a series of tunnels on a sunny day – dazzling stretches alternate with patches of sudden gloom. Ofili moved from London to Trinidad in 2005, a change that jolted his style from glittery exuberance to melancholic reverie. Instead of standard-issue Caribbean glare, he gives us the rapid fade to tropical night. In one dim gallery, a suite of black-and-indigo paintings forces you to keep shifting position in order to make out their secrets. The reward for persistence is a glimpse of some puzzling and disturbing scene – in “Iscariot Blues”, for instance, a shadowy figure hangs from the gallows beneath an arbour of drooping vegetation. Near the dangling corpse, two musicians sit on a bridge and keep playing, unperturbed by violent death. The scene is spooky and suggestive, a study in darkness with unfathomable psychic depth.

These midnight paintings challenge viewers to stare and invite them to wonder. We start to feel like unreliable witnesses, trying to discern the drama, unsure of what it means. “Blue Devils” intimates a clump of shadows – a black man surrounded by police officers, one in a constable’s cap, another in riot gear. Is this an innocent man being stopped and frisked, Jesus arrested by Roman soldiers, or some other form of oppression? Violence mixes with mystery.

Upstairs, darkness falls away. The walls are covered in a plum-coloured wash that glows, though not powerfully enough to compete with the paintings’ explosive tints and shimmying shapes. The subject matter comes from Ovid, with Matisse, Hockney, Bonnard and Gauguin all bubbling away in Ofili’s cauldron of references. And yet the gallery also rewards the uninformed glance with startling bursts of grace. In “Ovid-Actaeon”, three sun-yellow figures (two nymphs and a centaur) dance, forming a circle of limbs on a field of royal purple. Matisse and Picasso flit through the atmosphere but art-historical lineage is hardly the point. Rather, Ofili gets his strength from a fearless embrace of decorative brilliance. His pictures are filled with daylight, and their intoxicating combination of terror and joy makes you want to dip your finger in the coruscating pigment and savour those potent hues.

‘Chris Ofili: Night and Day’, New Museum, New York, to January 25 2015,

Slideshow photographs: Courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner Gallery, and Victoria Miro Gallery


Chris Ofili’s Romance With Paint (and Glitter and Dung)

An installation view of “Chris Ofili: Night and Day” at the New Museum.
(Courtesy David Zwirner, New York / London. Photo: Maris Hutchinson. All works © Chris Ofili)

The exhibition begins on the second floor with a roomful of works from the ’90s, including several that were included in a 1997 exhibition at Contemporary Fine Arts in Berlin titled “Pimpin’ ain’t easy but it sure is fun.” In reproduction Ofili’s paintings can sometimes appear merely pretty — awash with color and swirling patterns, his exaggerated figures rendered with a meticulous pointillist technique — but in person these works beg you to come close. Layers of resin and glitter and collaged paper form a dense, tactile skin, as if several warring compositions are lurking beneath the surface, partially submerged. Globules of elephant dung protrude from the canvas, occasionally playing the role of chunky jewelry medallions. In one work, an enormous, smiling penis stands erect behind a constellation of collaged imagery: pornographic hybrids of women’s legs and crotches, all of them surmounted by the heads of black men. (OK, that painting might offend you, but calm down.) A side room showcases works from the early- and mid-2000s, most of them rendered in a Pan-African palette of red, green, and black. None of the paintings on this floor are hung on the wall; instead they lean, supported by balls of elephant dung. The compositions are sultry and romantic, but the paintings’ protagonists are often obscured or upstaged by the material acrobatics; we almost neglect the couple in “Afro Love and Envy,” 2002-03, in favor of the crazily layered background, as shimmeringly unknowable as a circuit board.

 There isn’t a single false note in this retrospective. Ofili’s sculpture is every bit as inventive as his painting — from “Shithead,” 1993, a horrific quasi-self-portrait made using dung, real teeth, and his own hair, to “Annunciation,” 2006, a surreal bronze vision depicting the angel Gabriel meeting the Virgin Mary. The Virgin’s ample, shiny curves play off the dark-toned, finger-smushed heavenly visitor she is intimately embracing. (Perhaps anticipating a fuss, a wall label nods to art-historical precedent: “Just as many of the Annunciation images of the medieval and Renaissance painters had sexual overtones…”) A series of graphite drawings made between 2004 and 2007 are also terrific, combining abstract lines (which turn out to be made of very many tiny, Afro’d heads) with pulsing patterns that resemble clusters of mussel shells. If Ofili’s paintings from the ’90s were explosive and in-your-face, a selection of newer works — made between 2006 and 2014, following the artist’s relocation to Trinidad in ’05 — explore a very different, but still sensual, subtlety. They’re presented here in a low-lit gallery, and from certain angles they read as blank, blue-purple monochromes; walking past them, though, the paintings reveal themselves in increments — a somber pipe-smoker here, the gruesome body of a hanged man there. Everything builds and culminates on the fourth and final floor, an almost-too-much gut-punch, with nine large-scale oil-on-linen paintings hung on a wall painted top-to-bottom with a purple-tinged, floral environment (borrowed, evidently, from the 1947 film “Black Narcissus”). With these works, Ofili’s complexity and density of surface give way to a certain gleeful, compositional overload: “Lime Bar,” 2014, is a frenzy of visual information; “Cocktail Serenader,” 2014, is a rich jumble of forms, figures, and words. These works have a strange aura of timelessness — the scenes appear to be set in the middle of last century — and they’re weirdly nostalgic and elegiac. Seen in this immersive setting, they form a monument to what painting can still accomplish — an uneasy, complicated beauty — and a testament to Ofili’s desire to continue evolving his own practice. With any luck, maybe former Mayor Giuliani will pay a visit to “Night and Day,” and finally be able to see what depths exist beyond the supposed affront of unholy dung.