Friday, 22 January 2010

Chris Ofili at Tate Modern The Independent, London, 22 January 2010

Many artists and writers have made bold attempts to define the nature of modernity, and have rashly speculated upon the possible date of its inception. The novelist Virginia Woolf, for example, once famously wrote that human character changed in 1911. Her statement was an apology for writers such as herself, of course, who were beginning to re-define the nature of the reality that they themselves were experiencing by writing about it, in wholly unfamiliar ways, in fiction and poetry.

The painter Chris Ofili has had to rise to quite a different challenge. It too concerns the nature of modernity, and how he represents it now, but it is one which would never have occurred to the likes of Virginia Woolf, immured as she was in her white, middle-class, Bloomsbury fastness. Her notion of A Room of One’s Own (the title of one of her greatest books) would probably not have encompassed the possibility of having the likes of Chris Ofili as her next-door neighbour.

As a black man born in Manchester and now living in Trinidad, half a world away from the endless machinations of the London art world and London’s art dealers, how has Ofili defined his own experience of being alive, and succeeded in establishing his own black cultural identity through his art? These are the most important issues in Ofili’s art, and they are ones which he has wrestled with from the very beginning. This major retrospective at Tate Britain will give us an opportunity to judge for ourselves to what extent he has succeeded in becoming anyone other than a stranger to himself.

First of all, let us ask a simple question: when did modern Brit art first begin? For the sake of argument, let’s fix that date at 18 September 1997. That was the day on which the ‘Sensations’ show opened at the Royal Academy in London. The exhibition caused near universal outrage. On display were works with which the names of the artists would forever be identified. There was Damien Hirst’s shark, Tracey Emin’s tent, Marcus Harvey’s ‘Myra Hindley’ and the Chapman Brothers’ lurid, tasteless re-creation in three dimensions of a Goya etching of corpses draped over a blasted tree. And then, a little off to the side, almost unassumingly so, there was a glitzily colourful painting of a black Virgin Mary, leaning against a wall, and supported on little globs of elephant dung, by a young artist called Chris Ofili.

When the exhibition then travelled on to the Brooklyn Museum in New York, it was Ofili’s work which was singled out for the most vehement condemnation. The Archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O’Connor, decided that it was probably an attack upon religion itself. Could that really be true? The work, when you come to look at it now, seems too joyously decorative, to be carelessly revelling too much in its own visual splendour to be grimly pigeon-holed as some godless man’s act of wanton provocation. On the other hand, the devil is often in the detail, and when you examined it closely enough, it was very easy to spot the tiny illustrations of female genitalia clipped from porn mag…

Some of Ofili’s most interesting early works had already been painted by the time the Sensations show opened. The first of his ‘Captain Shit’ paintings, in which he introduced a character who looked like a crazed, sinister Lord of Misrule – part drug dealer, part savant, part reggae gangster - dates from 1996. In this series of paintings Ofili is already trying to seek out ways of defining his own identity as a young black artist from Manchester. The answer, then and for many years to come, was to present himself as a provocative shape-shifter, as an artist who both seemed to be defining notions of ‘Afro-Beauty’, but also somewhat standing back from them. Playing with them and perhaps even caricaturing them to a degree.

The question is this: how does an artist with Ofili’s background avoid the feeling that he is somehow fated to define ‘the black experience’ (whatever that is), and to be always regarded as ‘the Voodoo King, the Voodoo Queen, the witch doctor, the drug dealer, the magicien de la terre, the exotic’, as he once put it? One way was to treat all human experience as a kind of great lumber room to be plundered, to let everything in willy nilly, the sacred hand in hand with the profane. The world is just one giant, teeming department store asking to be looted. ‘I always think of the work as coming out of hip-hop culture, which is an approach to making and looking at things with no hierarchy. Everything just gets everything.’

In 1998, Ofili snatched the Turner Prize. Outrage once again, with accusations of political correctness, sophisticated headlines from the red-tops such as ‘dung great’, and random references to ‘damned dots and spots’, mind-numbing triumphs of idiot industry, concentrated tedium, etc, etc.. By now the Ofili style was becoming quite recognisable. It consisted of intensely worked and layered surfaces which made use of a variety of different materials - from glitter pins to paint and collaged images - and, within the intensive discipline of all that careful making, a spirit of almost riotous abandon, in the course of which Ofili seemed to be snatching images from all kinds of sources, and then gorgeously smothering all that image-making in layers of resin.

But that elephant dung was proving to be a problem. It was too silly and too memorable, in part, too easy a thing to be known and caricatured by. Ofili should have stopped using it years ago. It was too steamily redolent of what the white-middle class audience would pigeon-hole as symptomatic of the colourful – which, ultimately, means ridiculous - exoticism of the non-white.

Four years later, Ofili showed a room-sized installation called ‘The Last Supper’ at the Victoria Miro Gallery in East London, which was later to be purchased by, and then installed, at Tate Britain to howls of controversy. Why? Because Ofili was by then an establishment man himself; in fact, he was a trustee of the very gallery which had bought his own work. Was that quite right and proper? Well, the work hasn’t been hasn’t shipped back to Wharf Road, and it will be on show at his Tate Britain retrospective later this month.

‘The Last Room’ is a quasi-religious, sacred and profane spectacle, from first to last. Ranged down the sides of the rooms, as if in procession, are giant, glittering paintings of rhesus monkeys, winking, glittering back at you. They look – such is the cunning with which the light sources have been embedded – as if they are iluminated from within. And then, at the far end, there is a far more indistinct image, of yet another monkey. The sheer spectacle of it all, the spacing, the pacing, together with the enveloping darkness, instil a mood of reverence. But why are we feeling reverence? Because this room has all the trappings of religiosity. And if we don’t see any Christian iconography here, what about the monkeys? Isn’t the monkey god Hanuman sacred to the Hindus?

Once again, there is a strange ambivalence at work here. How does the artist expect us to respond to this piece? Is this an example of spirituality-lite - or not? Are we to take it seriously? Or is he off on some gorgeous decorative riff of his own? This may be a fatal weakness at the heart of much of Ofili’s early work, that he didn’t really know whether he should be taking himself and his work seriously, and he instilled this mood of uncertainty in his audiences. In short, he often came across as an artist who was playing vaudeville with his own identity.

The installation at the Tate was created by David Adjaye, the architect who also re-fashioned the interior of the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2003, the year that Ofili was Britain’s official representative there – accolades were being heaped upon accolades.

Once again, things were very stagey. The fairly predictable, neo-classical interior was completely obliterated. Looking up at the ceiling, you saw strange, threatening jaggings of glass, which looked like weird references to exotic vegetation. You turned small, sharp corners, almost groping your way around a space that felt labyrinthine, hot, oppressive – and yet, thanks to the nature of the works on the walls, unexpectedly carnivalesque too. Where exactly where we? It didn’t seem to matter all that much. The works themselves were from the Afro series. They showed beautiful black lovers against a flat red ground smooching in lush, paradisal settings. Some were naked, others got up for a night of hot squeezes at the cabaret. It felt a bit like a whoozy Garden of Eden of the mind. A garden of Eden fabricated in London, where Ofili was them living, we need to remind ourselves.

Once again, these works seemed to be at odds with themselves, and at odds with the environment within which they were being displayed. They were pretending to be both serious and unserious simultaneously. What was the truth behind all this extravagant posturing? Or was the extravagant posturing as much the truth as anyone could know – even the artist himself?

Now much of that has changed. Ofili decamped to Trinidad four years ago, and his paintings have changed too – both in their subject matter, and in their manner of making. We need to joke no longer about elephant dung because the elephant dung has gone. Thank god. (Thank Hanuman?) They are no longer so layered or so labour-intensive. Now there are even moments when the canvases are left blank and unpainted. In the past Ofili showed us paradisal gardens of the mind. He seemed to be swimming amongst images, snatching them from the air. The were in service to a gorgeous kind of pattern-making. Now things have changed. He is working in relative isolation at last, far from any clamouring metropolis. He is, in part, recording his own raw experience of the nature that surrounds him. Yes, that is the word for the tenor of some of these recent paintings: rawness.

A new openness. A new and more immediate receptivity. And a new rawness. In short, a new absence of superficial, pop-culture lumber.

What exactly are these recent paintings like? Many of them are starker and simpler than we have been accustomed to. They often use fewer colours. They are less elaborate in their making. They are not so fussy in their details. Colours don’t jump and jive together to the same extent. They stand apart from each other, making their own individual marks…

In the past there has always been the feeling, behind all the labour, and all that immaculate layering, that the work was perhaps just a little too mannered, a little too muffled in its dense detailing, even a little too facile. What exactly does facile mean in this context? It means that Ofili seemed to be working from the surface of himself, that, too closely watched by dealers, buyers and museums from too young an age, he had not had the time or the space to dig more deeply into himself, and discover exactly who he was, who he is, who exactly he will become. ‘It got to a point where I felt the work was really known in a public sense, that the division between public and private was like a thin membrane,’ he said in Trinidad recently. ‘And I didn’t feel that gave me a greater sense of freedom. The public is not within my control, but the work is, and I wanted to make changes within the work. That couldn’t happen in an arena that was familiar to me.’

Yes, now that much of that bustle and bother has fallen away, we can see more clearly the nature and the extent of the talent he has been gifted with. Now he can perhaps contemplate the nature of his own blackness without being regarded as a precious, token talent who can dance, at any hour, for the delectation of the art world.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Art and Illusions: masterpieces of trompe l’oeil from antiquity to the present day - The Independent, London

Every work of art contains a calculated element of deception. But the art of trompe l’oeil pushes deception to new extremes. It is flagrant, almost hubristic, in its wish to deceive, like some conjuror whose final hand is a risky act of sheer bravura at which he simply cannot afford to fail. Trompe l’oeil, in short, is optical illusionism overlarded with attention-grabbing special effects.

This big show, staged in a sixteenth century palazzo in Florence, tells the story of trompe l’oeil down the centuries, from the Roman times to our own day. It is a stagily staged show about an art of pure staginess. As we pass from gallery to gallery - these are often false galleries set within larger galleries - we find ourselves twisting, turning about, doubling back on ourselves, wondering whether at some point we will meet ourselves, perplexed, coming back. The gallery entrances are often tricked out to resemble picture frames. One long corridor looks like the three-dimensional re-enactment of a particularly effective piece of trompe l’oeil. Many of the paintings hang in recessed spaces, as if the framed object is being framed by the gallery itself.

The works themselves – the greater part of them are paintings, but there are also books, medical specimens, sculptures, fabrics, decorative wall tiles and much else – are often quite small, and very often they look smaller still because of their fussy attention to detail. What is more, the paintings often show us objects which are comfortably familiar, relatively unchallenging in their predictability. A game bird hanging from a hook. A vase of begonias. There are too many game birds reeking, upside down, in this show. We get a little tired of seeing them. There are also works in this show which should not have been here at all – these medical specimens from the 18th century, for example. What have they to do with trompe l’oeil?

The show’s most interesting works are by Americans, and especially the paintings of a little known artist called Otis Kaye, who died in 1974. The subject matter of Kaye’s works is American money, the greenback, pinned to a board, hanging by a thread, tangible enough to be snatched at. Given the illusory nature of money, and what an act of deception it often proves to be, it is perhaps not at all surprising that trompe l’oeil should be employed to show it off at its slippery best. So real. So trickily unreal.

Art and Illusions: masterpieces of trompe l’oeil from antiquity from antiquity to the present day Palazzo Strozzi, Florence until 24 January 2010

Ellsworth Kelly – Early Drawings, 1954-62 The Independent 11 January 2010

Middlesborough is quite a slow, grinding hike up England's East Coast Line at this miserably inclement time of year. The snow just never seems to stop flurrying against the carriage window. So think of your visit to see this fairly small, and very unusual, show of works by an American modern master of abstraction as a kind of new year pilgrimage.

Ellsworth Kelly is one of the most significant figures in the development of post-war American abstract painting. When the words America and abstraction are uttered together, you immediately think of Abstract Expressionism, that muscular, groundbreaking style of painting on the grand scale with which we associate the names of Motherwell, Pollock and Rothko. Kelly, though he began painting when Abstract Expressionism was helping to define New York as the new capital of world art, is not exactly a member of that school – in fact, he is not really a pupil or teacher of any school.

Consider the works in this show, for example. These are all drawings from the 1950s - in gouache, graphite, ink and pencil - when Kelly had a New York studio. But they don’t feel like the kind of works that would come out of a New York studio during the years when Abstract Expressionism was on its triumphal march. They are too fanciful, too quiet, too intimate, too sunny, too soft, too curvaceous, too engaged with the outside world, and too modest in size. Not a single one of them is more than one foot square. They don’t pressurise the onlooker, they don’t pose, they don’t posture. There is no wilfully aggressive brushwork, and in fact no sign of texture at all. They occupy a single, well-lit gallery on the first floor of the building, quite baggily too, as if to say: this is all there is, and it is quite enough. They are also very short on American machismo. Why do they feel so set apart when in fact he was in the midst of it all?

Because it was in 1954 – the year of the first of the 25 drawings in this show, which span almost a decade - that Kelly came back from eight years of living in Paris, where, having profited by the provisions of the GI Bill to study in Europe after the end of the Second World War, he had been learning to be an artist by looking at the likes of Matisse, Arp, Brancusi, Calder Picasso and others, and travelling around and visiting the great cathedrals and momuments of France. (Kelly served in a camouflage unit during the Second World War which, you could say, was also quite a good preparation for a career as an artist.) So when you look at a drawing in this show called ‘Study for a Palisade,’ and wonder why this specific combination of colours, and the particular way in which they are working together, remind you of the clerical robes that Matisse designed and had made for the chapel of St Paul de Vence at the beginning of the 1950s, you would be spot on. You will also notice that there seems to be the feel of European – perhaps even Mediterranean - light in these drawings. Yes, they feel European, tonally. What is also interesting to note is how different these works are in mood from the younger abstract artists from the USA who were so recently on view at the Saatchi Gallery in London. In the world of the young, everything is coming at you all the time. By comparison, Kelly seems to be moving at walking pace, as if plucking berries, one by one, from a bush. The choice is always his. He is not at the mercy of imagery.

In these works Kelly is teaching himself about colour, form and line. What happens when you put that particular blue against this particular green? What happens when a circular shape is squeezed or cropped by a rectangle, or when a bulgy black circle gets its edges shaved off? How close should a shape come to one that you half-recognise from the natural world – or to a shape that you glimpse down a microscope? What kind of sensuous energy does that inject? There is an ongoing tension between the shapes and how they are framed – straight line butting up against curve like a bull snorting at a gate.

These works may be called drawings, but they are often exercises in patchings and matchings of colour. The colours chime and rhyme melodically, sensuously; they seem to swim into almost effortless conjunctions with each other as if they have been feeling their way for quite a long time. There is patterning, but not patterning with the regularity of Frank Stella’s paintings of the 1960s. Kelly’s regularities always prove to be slightly wayward, slightly awkward, slightly irregular. And that makes you smile. They have a fluid, pared back shapeliness, a yielding sensuousness, about them. There is no spectacular trickery here, just attempts, time and again, to establish how a form establishes an identity for itself within a confined space. These works don’t have the sombreness, the anxious, Freud-oppressed, self-regarding sobriety of works by those Abstract Expressionists. In short, they lack onanism and braggadocio. In fact, they point the way forward to that jolly trickster, Robert Rauschenberg. And as you stare at them, you come to understand why Kelly kept them by him, why he needed to have them with him. These drawings helped to define his future as a painter. They are small-scale maps for ambitious future journeys. Yes, they are almost ready to be scaled up to ten times this size.

Why is this show of hitherto unseen drawings - yes, this is the very fist time in fifty years that they have left his studio as a group, and gone on international exhibition - by an artist in his eighty-sixth year who lives these days in Spencertown, Upstate New York here anyway? It’s not going anywhere else after this showing – except straight back to the artist’s studio. Which is where it came from in the first place. These are all works from Kelly’s private collection, stuff that he has kept by him for the past half century to learn lessons from; lessons in what to do next, and how.

And why are they being displayed here at MiMa in Middlesborough? Well, since it first opened its doors three years ago, MiMa has been establishing quite a track record as a place to go if you take drawing seriously. So this show of what you might describe as a series of small prototypes - in pen, charcoal, pencil, gouache and graphite - for a lifetime of paintings is a natural extension of what has gone before.

But Ellswothy Kelly won’t have all of them back. MiMa was recently given a grant of £1 million from the Art Fund to acquire works on paper, and Kelly agreed to sell two of the works which are currently on display in this show. So 25 arrived and 23 will be going back. Let’s hope he doesn’t miss them too much. Let’s hope that his future development as a painter isn’t put in jeopardy.

Ellsworth Kelly: Early Drawings, 1954-62 MiMa, Middlesborough until 21 February 2010