Tag Archives: Chris Ofili

Snapshot: Spring Shows at SMH

At the Studio Museum in Harlem, through June 28:

Harlem Postcards

Trenton Doyle Hancock: Skin and Bones

Salon Style


In Profile

The spring edition of Harlem Postcards is, as usual, a lively and intriguing welcome into the galleries (“Harlem Postcards”).  Love the “golden grapes” by Awol Erizko, inspired by an Egyptian kitsch image (T-shirt), and Elaine Reichek’s embroidered interpretation of a beaux-arts architectural detail (“Harlem Arcadia”).

The featured show, TDH (Amer., b. 1974): Sprawling, subversive, naughty, adolescent, densely-doodled cartoons; as per the title, the insides and outsides of human anatomy, real and imagined, rubbery, R. Crumb-“screwy,” Kerry-James-Marshall comics c. 2000, prehistoric and futurist, interspersed with hand-scripted odd-ball texts to match.  Keith Haring-like autonomy in the continuous, fluid contour drawing and mixed male messages.  Not particularly my sensibility; but surely, interesting critical investigations will be derived from this first (mid-career) retrospective for a driven, idiosyncratic draftsman.  If you do get caught up, you’ll be spending a good chunk of time unraveling it all.

More me (metaphorically; isn’t that the bottom line?) was the upstairs group show, “Salon Style.” (I once wrote a review, “Make-Up and Art” — see “Publications” page, 2012).  On the one hand, hair and (more recently in the grand scheme) nails, have become overdetermined tropes of black womanhood (globally), in specific terms of representation; on the other, related representations have been enormously influential, socially, politically and aesthetically, in the art world and beyond, since the early postwar years; and continue to be explored energetically. (I didn’t mention, in my post on the BMA Kehinde Wiley show, 2/23/15, the monument to ancestral-goddess hair, Bound, 2014).  Here, I was happy to see one of Chris Ofili’s idealized 70s-style fantasy watercolor portraits juxtaposed with one of Lorna Simpson’s similar photo-collage image-concepts (I noticed a kinship while both had simultaneous shows in NYC last year; see post, 11/3/14); as well as a demure Hank Willis Thomas manipulated “re-photograph”–ode to the perfect (female) Afro, and a small-scale Chakaia Booker (just because Booker’s formal “rubber-tire” inventiveness is always amazing).  But the star of this show is surely Pamela Council, with her “blaxidermy” (the artist’s term) art of artificial nails, from a series homage to the late, great Olympic runner Flo-Jo (Florence Griffith Joyner).

Being partial to both bricolage and Minimalist aesthetics, I was engaged by the bookish installation downstairs, Unbound (2015), in which artist Samuel Levi Jones has lined the gallery walls with tattered book spines, bindings, and covers, faded to beige and rust tones and arranged grid-like, to suggest both the immobility of entrenched, institutionalized epistemes and the malleability of collected knowledge vis-a-vis new contexts.

Highlights from two smaller installations of works from the permanent collection:

Upstairs in “Concealed” I would note: an early Willie Cole “domestic iron” piece, in which iron-burnt impressions suggest spear-shaped, worn masks (early 1990s); a realist charcoal portrait of a contemporary figure turned hybrid under a under a heavy, Baga-type mask by Robert Pruitt; and a manipulated photo-portrait by Paul Anthony Smith, in which a Kuba mask is superimposed on the sitter and “flecked” (actually pricked over with a sharp implement) to appear as shining.

Downstairs, “In Profile”: a small Barkley Hendricks “icon” of a shaded-glasses-70s dude that resonates right now with the similar recent, gold-backed portraiture of Titus Kaphur (see post 12/8/14) and Wiley (at BMA); also, a ceramic rosebud-blooming head by Simone Leigh, and a rough-hewn hair-shop-sign assemblage by Alison Saar, both of which would have looked great upstairs in “Salon.”


Notes on SMH Winter Shows: Printed Matter and Art; the Visual Rhetoric of Mug Shots; Ab-Ex Redo

Studio Museum in Harlem (www.studiomuseum.org)
Through March 2015:

Speaking of People: Ebony, Jet and Contemporary Art
Kianja Strobert: Of This Day in Time
Titus Kaphar: The Jerome Project

“Speaking of People” presents stylistically diverse contemporary work that refers in various ways to the long-running, African-American-run-and-targeted popular periodicals, Ebony and Jet, published by the Johnson Publishing Co. The  theme follows up on an exhibition by David Hartt, primarily a photographer, presented at SMH last year (Spring 2013), which explored the physical enterprise of the original Chicago headquarters of Johnson Publishing in documentary and aesthetic terms of African American modernism of the sixties and seventies. In the current show, Hartt is represented by a photo close-up of a patch of geometric/tribal-patterned carpet at Johnson’s, tilted into an abstract wall piece. Hank Willis Thomas provides literal and semiotic signage in his composite, punning logo paintings, Jet People, and  Ebony Life, to suggest associative binary word play. His installation of Jet “beauties of the week,” which plasters a downstairs gallery with examples (the magazine pages) from the early 1950s to the present, raises all sorts of questions about gender, race, visual culture, conceptual art, appropriation, the foundations and messages of Willis’s oeuvre to the present — in short, very .  . . interesting. Lorna Simpson’s recent hand-embellished collages, which dreamily conjure Afrocentric glamor, bear an interesting comparison with Chris Ofili’s wall of watercolor portraits concurrently on view at the New Museum (see post, 11/3/14) in the shared revisionist Age-of-Aquarius nostalgia and mix of unique identities and idiosyncratic idealization. Meanwhile Ellen Gallagher’s compilation of goofily obscured and graffiti-pocked ads promoting mainstream (mainly code white) beauty offers a critical antidote.

Loran Simpson installation at SMH (image: www.studiomuseum.org)
Lorna Simpson installation at SMH (image: www.studiomuseum.org; for the sake of comparison with Chris Ofili’s installation at the New Museum below (image: www.tate.org.uk)

Chris Ofili (image: www.tate.org.uk)

             Kianja Strobert is the kind of painter that restores faith in the unexpected sensory pleasures and powers of abstraction, in sharp  contrast to the multiplying, referential image-driven productions pervasive in contemporary art. Gritty and crystalline swaths of textural, metallic and charcoal-y substances are swept and woven upon and through boldly brushed autumnal color and punctuated by calligraphic drops and scrawls to suggest natural phenomenon, celestial visions, and psyche-scapes.

Titus Kaphar offers a group of photorealist-style mug shots of black men on gold grounds – icons – each partly obscured by  a tar-like black paint rising from the bottom. As with Strobert’s bravura in her metier, Kaphar’s refined painterly detail is appealing particularly as juxtaposed with prevalent appropriation and conceptual styles, here highlighted by the stark juxtaposition of the face-encroaching blotted scrims. The back story—Kaphar’s search for his father, which led to the depicted imprisoned men, each named Jerome, is crucial, and adds to the visual tension between stereotypes, individuality, and seriality conveyed in the row of images, as installed.

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]