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.

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