October 15, 2007

Ofili shows us the long journey, the big picture

"Chris Ofili," David Zwirner, New York, NY. Through November 3.

This is Ofili's first NY solo show since The Holy Virgin Mary came to the Brooklyn Museum in 1999 and sparked a huge controversy. Ofili now lives in Trinidad and no longer uses elephant dung on his canvases.

In New York Magazine, Jerry Saltz reports that Ofili is in a transitional phase. "Some have said that Ofili has been living too far from the art world for too long, and that no one is saying no to him anymore. But Ofili, always a maverick, may be trying to see where only saying yes will lead. He knows this will mean periods of unevenness—now being one of those periods. Yet amid intense critical scrutiny and the distorting glare of the market, Ofili is doing something quite bold: He’s giving up his formulas and looking for new forms. Cynics will say all the work will sell anyway. Perhaps, but this kind of jadedness dismisses an artist for all the wrong reasons. Obviously, an unknown painter couldn’t mount a show this big and uneven at this gallery. In 'Devil’s Pie,' Ofili is asking us to understand that an artist’s work is not only about a slice but about the whole pie—about a long journey and the big picture. He wants you to see the arc of a career, the experimental parts, not just chart-toppers. Ofili is trying to create his own history and context, and I would take any drawing or print here. Additionally, four of the paintings suggest numerous ways through the perilous straits he finds himself in. Two canvases have rich swirling surfaces of aluminum paint; another is layered with collage atop a surface of aluminum foil. Ofili is still a champion. It would be a huge mistake to think otherwise." Read more.

David Cohen in the NY Sun calls the show big-hearted and boisterous."A cynic might think that working on a grand scale and volume to meet his market success has determined this shift in style, but I do not sense any sellout in Mr. Ofili's change of gear. On the contrary, there is a sense of maturity and authority in these graceful, lush canvases. His work always straddled a divide between different cultures; now Western modernism is the primary source, although black culture still permeates the imagery and the religious sensibility of these works. The biggest influences on these paintings are Picasso and Matisse, seen for instance in "The Raising of Lazarus" (2006), but tellingly, the results often recall the African-American expressionist Bob Thompson in the luxuriant elongations of the figures and the lyrical strength of color." Read more.

In The Village Voice,
Daniel Kunitz says Ofili's new work falls just short of failing. "To my mind, what makes Ofili consistently perverse—aside from his habit of turning ostensibly religious subjects into lewd jokes—is that his paintings often flirt with being outright terrible. In the wrong hands, the hyperstylized retro look he employs in these new works could, with just a few bad choices, easily turn into overweening poster art, glib parodies fit only for suburban malls....'Devil's Pie' might at first seem shockingly decorative. Eventually, I suspect, it will win over its critics with its Mephistophelian guile." Read more.

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