Three Shades of Chris Ofili

Like the three fantastic realms of the afterlife in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the New Museum’s current exhibition, Chris Ofili: Night and Day (on view until January 25, 2015), is divided into three distinctly different gallery spaces that challenge viewers to interact with each work in intensely visual, meditative, and thought-provoking ways. The retrospective traces Ofili’s trajectory as a painter over the past two decades, demonstrating his development as an artist who masterfully creates technically complex compositions to address ideas of black culture, female stereotypes, and history. Via the use of controlled environments, curators Massimiliano Gioni, Gary Carrion-Murayari, and Margot Norton have proven that the impact of a work of art is often determined by the setting in which it is displayed.

Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996. Paper collage, oil paint, glitter, polyester resin, map pins & elephant dung on linen, 96 x 72 in. Photograph by the author.
Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996. Paper collage, oil paint, glitter, polyester resin, map pins & elephant dung on linen, 96 x 72 in. Photograph by the author.

This isn’t the first time Ofili’s work has been exhibited in New York City. Much to then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s outrage, Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) was displayed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1999 as part of Charles Saatchi’s exhibition Sensation. The former mayor, who called Ofili’s work “sick,” wasn’t alone in his protest; many visitors were deeply offended by Ofili’s daring representation of the Virgin Mary, whose right breast is formed of the now-infamous elephant dung and whose body is surrounded by magazine clippings of female buttocks. In his ire, Dennis Heiner, a seventy-two-year old Catholic Brooklynite, vandalized the work by smearing white paint over it. Fifteen years later, in his first major solo museum exhibition in the United States, Ofili proves that rather than hinder his artistic career, the controversy helped to establish him as one of the most provocative artists of his day.

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