Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Hip-hop, Catholicism and Chris Ofili

A common criticism levelled at contemporary artists is that they don't know how to paint. Chris Ofili certainly does. The current retrospective at Tate Britain presents him as the most painterly of painters. His works are all about the sensual layering of paint; the celebration of virtuouso technique; the fusing of colour and pattern that calls to mind the printed textiles of Nigeria, Ofili's ancestral home. Not content with exuberant brushwork, he decorates his works with an infectious rash of psychedelic ornamentation, a multi-coloured braille. Collaged magazine images and glitter fizz and spark. Images are sampled from popular black culture (the pimps, dealers and prostitutes of blaxploitation films) or religious iconography (the Virgin Mary, the Last Supper) and then mashed up on the canvas. And, somewhere, you will find the unmistakable signature of the artist: a lump of elephant dung elevated to the status of a modern totem. "[Using the dungballs is] a way of raising the paintings up from the ground," explains Ofili, "and giving them a feeling that they've come from the earth rather than simply being hung on a wall." In Ofili's hip-hop aesthetic the beautiful and the degrading, the sacred and profane, history and culture bump and grind to a sweaty rhythm.

In 1999 as part of the famous Charles Saatchi Sensation exhibition, Ofili exhibited his painting, The Holy Virgin Mary, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The then mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani, issued a law suit against the museum and declared, "There's nothing in the First Amendment that supports horrible and disgusting projects!" It is fascinating to see this work in a less heated environment and without the white noise of controversy. By placing the The Holy Virgin Mary within Ofili's oeuvre, rather than isolating it, the painting can be approached with a less prejudicial attitude. Certainly, the work remains deeply unsettling and provocative but it's difficult to articulate why. Ofili takes opposing cultural and spiritual positions and allows them to collide. An African sensibility and black power politics clash with Western European representations of the Madonna; title and image clash; the holiness and purity of the Madonna clashes with the degraded images of women in pornography; black stereotypes clash with the liberal values of the art establishment; oil painting clashes with animal excrement. The painting is an assault on the viewer's expectations and provokes a reaction. One reaction was to see the painting as an act of blasphemy. However, the art critic, Waldemar Januszczak (initially sympathetic to that reaction) offers an alternative interpretation Sorry, Chris Ofili, I was talking dung - Times Online:
Ofili’s art, with its recurring religious tonality and ecstatically colourful surfaces, is in fact engaged in a battle for sanctity. Far from being deliberately offensive or trite, this exhilarating, excitable, energising art can be understood as an attempt to find spiritual meaning in a spiritless world. I am not saying Ofili is a monk. The kind of religious energy he taps is wild and irresponsible, ecstatic and confused. It’s Blake’s energy, not Raphael’s; St John of the Cross, not the Vicar of Dibley. The Holy Virgin Mary, I now read, was an attempt to understand what happens to the insoluble ancient mystery of the virgin birth when it runs into the modern image of womanhood promoted by Ofili’s beloved hip-hop culture. How can the traditional image of the Virgin Mary survive Snoop Dogg’s world of bitches and hos? What fruits are possible of such a meeting? It’s a ridiculously eccentric question, yet strangely pertinent. Ofili deserves the loudest applause for daring to ask it. That’s what he’s like. All through this show, in half a dozen rooms of spangled toing and froing between poignant ancient mysteries and manic disco rhythms, thoroughly beautiful artworks are asking thoroughly unusual questions of our thoroughly confused times.

Interesting though this take is, nothing about Ofili's work feels either Blakean or inspired by St John of the Cross. Using these figures to hang an argument about Ofili's "religous energy" feels contrived. Neverthless, Januszczak does remind us of the artist's sincere interest in religion (Ofili was raised a Catholic, served as an altar boy and had a Catholic education), not just as a source of iconography but as an important value in human discourse. And nowhere is this made more clear than at the stillpoint of the Ofili retrospective, The Upper Room, which is both an installation and a series of paintings.

You enter The Upper Room via a long dimly lit corridor which leads into a chapel like chamber. The viewer moves from a shadowy, confined space to an open one with shimmering paintings resting against the walls: six on each side and at the far end of the room, a single large canvas. Each of the twelve canvases around the walls contain the identical image of a monkey holding a cup based on a 1957 Andy Warhol drawing.

Yet each painting has its own distinctive colour scheme, so that it becomes an illuminated jewel in its own right. The chief monkey at the head of the room is painted in luxurious gold and sumptiously textured. Though conventional references to the Last Supper are removed from this work, their absence paradoxically heightens the religious associations and the memory of the sacred event is made real for a new, largely secular audience in an act of artistic anamnesis. Even in a world where transcendence is threatened, the religious imagination bleeds into the secular and transports us from restlessness to contemplation.

Chris Ofili, Tate Britain, 27 January - 16 May 2010

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