February 2010, Chris Ofili @ Tate Britain

Chris Ofili, Blossom, 1997
Private Collection, Copyright Chris Ofili


Chris Ofili
Tate Britain
London SW1P 4RG
27 January through 16 May, 2010 

Surviving the self-exhaustion of a successful trademark-style is, for an established artist, one of the most challenging and career-threatening moments. Take Jackson Pollock for instance, with his unique ‘pouring and dripping’ technique adopted in the 40s. His innovative approach to painting made him recognisable to many, and established the artist as one of the 'geniuses' of the last century. However, a few years after his first drip, under the mounting pressure of art critics who expected and demanded to see something new, in 1951 Pollock changed his style incorporating figurative elements. These later works never quite captured the imagination of critics, collectors and public, causing Pollock’s alcoholism to degenerate into an ultimately destructive spiral.

Those artists who manage to carve a consistent space in the minds of collectors, critics and public, do so by creating a unique visual lexicon that separates them from the mere copyists and elevates their work to iconic status. Once this process is completed, the artist can enjoy a relatively extended period of stability through which a large number of art works that taxonomically belong to the same group can be produced. This is what the collectors and commercial galleries really want: recognisable and desirable art objects, representative of the artist's work through an echo of constant repetition. This phase of stability and prosperity is, however, bound to come to an end as the collector’s thirst is quenched and the public, too, becomes overly familiar with the style. Then, the critics will begin to apply pressure and to prod for new work. After all, in creative industries, the most long-lived artists are those who continuously and convincingly reinvent themselves and their output. It may not always work - it may be the end of a career, a hiccup, a moment that will be re-discovered and understood ten or twenty years later and that perhaps, seen within the context of the artist’s development and through the passing of time, may acquire meanings that eluded its first exposure.

This may be the case with the work of Chris Ofili, currently on show at Tate Britain. The exhibition takes us through the most significative steps of Ofili’s career and it does so following a rather questionable chronological order. Through the prescribed route, the public explores the opulent and intricate motives of Ofili’s trademark style with memorable works such as No Woman, No Cry and the Holy Virgin Mary, travels through the awe inspiring Upper Room, and then is invited to take note that Ofili currently seems to have completely abandoned the exuberant elegance of his earlier works in favour of a completely new approach to painting - one that perhaps seems to lack the underlying originality that his older works so proudly and brazenly presented.

The Upper Room is a highlight. The dimly lit corridor that leads to the main room where thirteen paintings of rhesus macaque monkeys hang, functions as a cleansing, preparatory journey to spiritual awareness. As the main room is reached, the contrast between the darkness of the corridor we have just left behind and the shimmery intensity of colours of the paintings is overwhelming. The room, a collaboration with architect David Adjaye, effectively brings the viewer to experience the solemnity and mystic atmosphere of a place of worship, whilst here too, layers of signifiers dangerously oscillate between the sacred and the profane.

Past The Upper Room, Ofili’s large canvases from 2000 in red, black and green, which represented Britain at the 2003 Venice Biennale, are vivid reminders that Ofili’s technique is highly versatile and that it had not yet exhausted its expressive potentials. However, this is effectively the last time we encounter Ofili’s trademark technique in this exhibition, as the remaining rooms present a selection of works on papers, interesting, but strangely resounding as curiosities rather than works in their own right - a sort of interval rather than a new chapter in the show.

Then comes the new turn. In 2005 Ofili moved to Trinidad and has since produced a number of works that present new pictorial solutions. The most impressive are The Blue Rider paintings, named in reference to the 20th century artists' group whose members sought to express a spiritual merging of art and music. Ofili explains that the canvases were inspired by the night and twilight of Trinidad, where the absence of city lights enhances imagination. These large canvasses are fascinating. But the almost black on black painting (here revised as blue on blue) is hardly a new or original approach. These paintings are bare in comparison to Ofili’s previous stages of work and surely take less time to create. It must be rather liberating for the artist to be able to re-design his approach to the art in such way that it allows for painting to become a faster activity. (Those of you who are naturally inclined to interpret this statement as a cynical and commercially tainted one are free to do so).

Aside from the development of a highly personal and challenging approach to painting, Ofili’s strength as an artist lies in the brave juxtaposition of sacred and profane, beauty and ugliness, classical and street culture that so markedly characterised his work. In an interview to Donna de Salvo (Artforum, October 2004) the artist explains that he finds inspiration in hip-hop’s cut and past attitude. "You can often hear where one joint ends and another begins, which is something I try to make apparent in my work, so you can see how things are made." Or in a recent interview with Ekow Eshun (Tate exhibition catalogue, 2010) in reference to the controversial work 7 Bitches Tossing Their Pussies Before the Divine Dung, 1995 he explains: "I was drawn to Blake’s images first as a watercolour… At the same time I was interested in how Snoop Dogg could sing quite vulgar lyrics with a sweet, smooth West Coast voice, in the coming together of the rough and the smooth." The intricate and evanescent layering of gloss varnish, resins, glitters, oil and acrylic paint, and cut outs from magazines seem to echo the complexity and imbedded contradictions of the cultural scenarios we live in. Ofili’s references to afro-culture, blaxploitation films, racisms, Christianity, gangsta rap, sexuality and psychedelia, beautifully blend together in the trajectories of the painstakingly dotted rhythmic patterning and African cultural elements that often formed the backbone of his early works.

However, his new works exploring the mystery and folklore of Trinidad, strangely, look too simple, cold and empty. I wonder if it is because I have just travelled through the wealth and exuberance of the earlier work that these newer paintings seem quiet, perhaps too quiet. I leave the exhibition with the same impression that even the best 'greatest hits' album invariably tends to leave. Those two new songs added at the end of a string of memorable hits do not seem to quite match the greatness and personality of the predecessors. Is it because they are newer and therefore less familiar or because they have not yet had the opportunity to stand the test of time… or something else altogether? 

Giovanni Aloi

 Giovanni Aloi is an art historian in modern and contemporary art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sotheby’s Institute of Art New York and London, and Tate Galleries. He has curated art projects involving photography and the moving image is a BBC radio contributor, and his work has been translated into many languages. Aloi is Editor in Chief of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture www.antennae.org.uk.

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