Psychedelic Superstars, Pan-African Paradises: Chris Ofili at the New Museum

“Chris Ofili: Night and Day, ” NMCA, NYC through 1/25/15.

“The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996) is to Chris Ofili as “Piss Christ” (1987) is to Andres Serrano– namely, a catapult to the head of the culture wars played out in the contemporary art world in the late 20th-century. (I’m still peeved that tax $ went to then mayor Giuliani’s self-serving, failed legal bid to close the 1999 “Sensation” exhibit of YBA’s at the Brooklyn Museum’s, for which Ofili’s painting became poster child, with threats of pulled city funding to the institution).  If you haven’t seen this mixed-media mother deity painting in person, don’t miss the chance. Repros barely capture a trace of its gleaming, slightly goofy yet aloof and slyly eroticized aura, in which the figure gazes out over viewers. (What does come through in repros, unlike the tiny applied images of female genitalia floating around her, is her black “skin,” likely the insidious underpinnings, conscious or not, of the right-wing hoopla in the context of said Catholic saint.)  She presides in a gallery of ‘90s works likewise bedecked in sequin-y ‘70s splendor, further ornamented with dots of collaged magazine pics and the artist’s signature shellacked elephant dung (were the tests ever in on that?); overall, formally stunning and rich with collective content, including (not at all limited to): art historical nods and allusions, Black Power  versus mass media visual politics in the U.S., and Nigerian and other African material culture and spirituality, which he absorbed from home-base in London, with intermittent travels to Africa (b. 1968; Royal College of Art, MFA, 1993; currently lives and works mainly in Trinidad).

More recent work includes an installation of dark-bluish paintings in a barely lit room, creating a black-light ambiance and Rothko Chapel environment, or postmodern Ad Reinhardt effect, as Roberta Smith aptly put it in her NYT review.*  As viewers approach the texturally nuanced surfaces of the canvases from different angles, shadowy images, some highly disturbing, appear like ghosts haunting dense jungles–majestic dystopian takes on the faded out-of-Africa scenarios in the murals of Aaron Douglas.  Similar settings take a paradisiacal turn elsewhere  throughout the show, with voluptuous Eves and a few Adams luxuriating before sharply patterned foliage and pan-African-chromed (black, red,  green) Op Art backdrops. Examples from the artist’s extensive, ongoing series of idealized watercolor portraits shimmer across on long wall, and a few syncretistic sculptures pull his mash-up Diasporic reality together.

Thematic and aesthetic overlaps between Ofili and concurrently emerging African American artists on the global scene c. 1990 have been pointed out.  In terms of this season in NYC, Nick Cave’s recent shows at Jack Shainman offered some thematic and aesthetic cross-over (see post).

*R. Smith, “Medium and Message, Both Unsettling: ‘Chris Ofili: Night and Day,’ a Survey at the New Museum,” New York Times, 10/30/14 (online); 10/31/14 (print).

At the New Museum's "Chris Ofili" exhibition, 11/2/14
At the New Museum’s “Chris Ofili” exhibition, 11/2/14
"Chris Ofili" at the New Museum, NYC (11/2/14)
“Chris Ofili” at the New Museum, NYC (11/2/14)
At the Chris Ofili exhibition, New Museum, NYC (11/2/14) (wood sculpture with nails -- e.g., a postmodern "nkondi / nkisi"
“Chris Ofili,” New Museum, NYC (11/2/14) [wood sculpture with nails ; a “new world” nnkisi nkondi]

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