Notes on Chris Ofili’s Night and Day at The New Museum

by Paddy Johnson on January 31, 2015 · 3 comments Opinion

Chris Ofili Day and Night , Installation view. Maris Hutchinson/EPW

Chris Ofili Night and Day, Installation view. Maris Hutchinson/EPW

It only took me three months to see the Chris Ofili show at The New Museum but, boy, am I glad I made that happen last week. It’s fucking incredible—I left the museum euphoric. And the three floor show of paintings, drawings, and sculpture has been extended until the end of the weekend, so you’ve still got time to see it. I can’t recommend doing so highly enough.

A couple of notes:

  • I don’t know if there’s an artist alive today with a better mastery of color, paint and collage. The first floor is filled with 12 of Ofili’s early paintings from the 90’s which incorporate paint, resin, glitter, magazine clippings and elephant dung (a material collected during a trip to Zimbabwe in 1992.) Almost all of them are figurative—with references to Blaxploitation films, religious icons such as the Madonna and psychedelia. (These paintings include those that were shown in Sensation, the Brooklyn Museum show in 2000 that caused mayor Giuliani to shut down the subway because he was upset with the combination of elephant dung and the Madonna. Had he actually looked at the paintings he might have taken offense at  the porn surrounding the figure, since the dung is a fertility reference and a total non-issue.) Anyway, stars, multicolored streaming patterns, and heavy paint dots used to create figurative outlines define this work and it’s just a pleasure to look at.
  • Expect to see a few dicks.
  • The five paintings in the dimly lit back room of the second floor,  is where the color really sings. These images combine a Christmas tree palette with heavy blacks to create lush, sex surfaces depicting figures surrounded by trees and greenery. The centerpiece, a large reclining odalisque on the back wall, might even be a bit over stimulating. Between the exploding star in the sky, the figure and the rendering of every single tree leaf, I left a little overwhelmed.
  • Ignore the sculpture of a dark angle and a shiny copper woman having sex on the second floor. It’s totally cheesy.
  • On the fence about the brilliance of the third floor “Blue Ryder” paintings. The series title references a twentieth-century artist group that sought spirituality by connecting visual art with music and the paintings are meant to evoke twilight and the soulfulness of blues music. So naturally they are dark blue paintings lit as though it were twilight, which means you can barely see them. I barely made out the figures and narratives emerge, including a lynching. Should I be able to see the narratives better? Is the combination of these elements just a little cheesy or is it poetic? That’s an actual question—I can’t decide how I feel about these works.
  • The fourth flour of recent paintings are just unfucking believably good. Stylistically they combine Henri Matisse-like figures and Art Deco backgrounds while the subject matter references ancient Roman stories such as the tale of the goddess Diana and the hunter Actaeon. But these paintings exceed the laurels of their touchstones. Matisse just never painted anything this good.  Their success is in part due to the installation itself, in which Ofili actually painted a purple wooded landscape on the walls. The brightly colored paintings seem to jump off the wall. (Well, all but Raising of Lazarus, a blue and orange painting, which due to the palette similarity to the background looks better on a white wall.)  But with or without the installation, these paintings are just fundamentally masterful. You don’t see that every day, so that’s why I’m spending part of this weekend back at the New Museum.



Sven February 2, 2015 at 12:05 am

>Matisse just never painted anything this good.

Give me a break. It was an enjoyable show but you’re hyperbole is over the top with that comparison. Most of Ofili’s forms become leaden with decorative exaggeration, his colors don’t approach Matisse’s level of mastery and his spatial compositions are mostly trapped in two dimensions whereas Matisse was one of the first artists to effectively re-invent pictorial space.

I thought the blue paintings were the most intriguing but agree that their near-imperceptible presentation bordered on obfuscation.

Every critic is entitled to their own opinion but ask Ofili if he thinks he’s a better painter than Matisse.

Paddy Johnson February 2, 2015 at 12:19 am

Eh, we disagree on Matisse. I don’t care much for his paintings, so that was an easy comparison for me to make. I could do without ever seeing “Dance” again. The Picasso Matisse show at MoMA back in 2002 convinced me he wasn’t terrible—his mastery of pattern is exceptional—but ultimately he’s not for me.

Sven February 2, 2015 at 12:35 am


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