The artist’s new exhibition, at the David Zwirner gallery in New York, is a controlling show, one that minimizes the viewer’s ability to walk around the gallery’s space freely.
Photograph by Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio courtesy the artist and David Zwirner New York / London
To approach a Chris Ofili painting is to make peace with one’s own smallness. For the last twenty or so years, the British artist has accumulated entire universes on his canvases, some of which almost reach a museum ceiling. In “Afrodizzia,” from 1996, the heads of icons such as James Brown, Diana Ross, and Nelson Mandela, cut out from photographs, float glamorously, like planets, in a swirling cloud of multicolored dots. Ofili tends to use found materials—beads, glitter, sequins, and, most famously, elephant dung—to decorate his allegorical images. He has painted Eden in red, green, and black, the chromatic grammar of black liberation, large and lush. When, a couple of years ago, he created a set for the Royal Ballet, the project required an entire warehouse. “Did I really paint something that big?” he said when the curtain rose on “Metamorphosis: Titian 2012,” at the Royal Opera House in London, the city where he lived full time until 2005. He drew the backdrop with a stick of charcoal inside a length of bamboo. “When I was drawing the big orange moon I found that I was drawing the big curved line of it for about a minute,” he told Charlotte Higgins, of the Guardian. “I realised I had never drawn a continuous line for that length of time.”
Ofili, who is forty-eight, is restless, a master who fiendishly pursues change. As a student at the Chelsea School of Art, his portraiture was reminiscent of the work of George Condo. By the time Ofili had gained the permanent attention of the often fickle international art world, in the late nineties, he was hung up on the boisterous spirit of hip-hop. In 2005, he moved to Trinidad and started making ecstatic, ecological scenes, influenced by the nature around him. Two years ago, I listened to the titan of philosophy Fred Moten talk about the fraught convergence of blueness and blackness in “Blue Riders,” Ofili’s series that fantastically racialized the early-twentieth-century German Der Blaue Reiter movement’s devotional obsession with the color blue. “Paradise Lost,” his new exhibition at the David Zwirner gallery in New York, represents a move, however momentarily, from Ovidian bounty to Miltonian loss. The Chelsea exhibition has two rooms. From the lobby the first appears empty, an intimidatingly empty antechamber. To the left of the room is a birdcage. Inside it, miniature objects dangle on a string of golden beads, each apparently torn from a wooden puppet: a torso, in a prison-striped shirt, with arms outstretched; a black man’s head; his cartoonishly muscular legs. Peering at this violent, impish display, Ofili’s viewers are suddenly made to feel large, and self-consciously so.
In the next room, Ofili does an about-face: the art is so big that necks must be craned to view it, and even then it cannot be taken in all at once. And, only a few months after showing Edenic landscapes in London, at his “Weaving Magic” exhibition, he has now evacuated his paintings of color. The predominant tone is gray, with some silver and black for emphasis. As if to convey Maya Angelou’s knowledge that the caged bird does sing, but with a “fearful trill,” the center of the space has been cordoned off with a diamond-link fence, rather like a cage, inside of which four works on linen have been hung, one on each side. Meanwhile, the gallery walls are covered by a continuous frieze of dancers, with coquettishly pursed lips and sensually closed eyes. Jewelry knocks about their swaying limbs and, save for thin cloths, they are naked. At “Weaving Magic,” a similar chorus of gray women functioned as a backdrop, a new gallery wall, for the exhibit’s focal point: a woven tapestry of tropical largesse. In New York, as I drew closer to the claustrophobic expanse of Ofili’s gray carnival, I noticed that a chain-link pattern, one that mirrored the structure in the room, had been overlaid onto their forms. They, like the paintings, or perhaps like us, were caged.
“Paradise Lost” is a controlling show, one that minimizes the viewer’s ability to walk around the gallery’s space freely. The cage has no opening, so one must try to take in the paintings inside it from yards away, and never from straight on; meanwhile, one cannot get far enough away from the muses in the frieze, who are in any case partly obscured by their overlay, to fully take them in. Similarly, the diamond steel wire bisects our views of the paintings. I laced my fingers through the steel wire like some city schoolgirl plotting a recess escape. The paintings inside feature iterations of Ofili’s beloved forms; triangles within rectangles abound, creating transfixing geometries. I could see, from my corner, that one painting, “Embah,” was flanked by the mysterious text “Emheyo Bahabba.” Inside the markings of two paintings, I thought that I perceived shadows, curved like the monstrous, mythic women gathered around me. No matter how much I paced around to get a better angle, I never seemed close enough. My desires frustrated, I finally left the second room. Walking out, the hanging man in the birdcage seemed more like an omen.
“Paradise Lost” does not seem, at first glance, like an immersive show. But Ofili’s mise en scène furtively implicates the viewer. The obstructions the show presents—preventing you from getting close to the paintings in the cage, from experiencing the fullness of the mural, from getting the full picture in general—are productive. We’ve wondered for so long what it might be like to frolic in Ofili’s fecund, attractive worlds; now we know that it may be like a prison. How much is our understanding of art, and of human beings, predicated on the ideal of physical proximity? It is not just that we want to see paintings up close; it is that we want to be able to see into the artist’s mind, to fully participate in his grandeur. “Paradise Lost” does not grant this. In the past, Ofili has entertained the idea that, before history, there could have been a black Eden; his move to Trinidad could be considered, in light of his English youth, a post-colonial return of sorts. But “Paradise Lost” suspends us in the knowledge that our myths bind as much as they rescue. The lack of experience is the experience.
Later, I requested closeups of the paintings from the gallery. The enigmatic shadow in a painting named “V” revealed itself as an outline of a female nude. Another painting, “Ellipsis,” had two tangled forms shaded in its center, possibly Ofili’s original Edenic lovers. Faintly, “Libido” depicted a male nude in a split, his penis black and prominent. There are other references to be pulled from “Paradise Lost.” It’s easy to view the broken black figure in the cage as a totem of the primal trauma in the Atlantic, the ethnic loss of innocence—look at the crude confluence of the desire for flight and the tradition of enslavement in the birdcage. The dancers in the mural signal Carnival, and the hybridity of Trinidadian culture. The islands of Trinidad and Tobago are home to hundreds of species of birds, particularly songbirds; as Ofili has explained, in Trinidad, men often go around with the songbirds they have captured, training them to compete in singing the sweetest song. Ofili has also said that “Embah,” one of four paintings that hangs inside the chain-link cage, is an homage to the Trinidadian artist Emheyo Bahabba, to whom Ofili and Peter Doig, who is also currently showing in New York City, grew close while living in Trinidad. Such references might seem to bring us closer to the artist, but perhaps they only dampen the estrangement Ofili provokes us to feel. In his rooms, we didn’t know whether we were bird or man.