Chris Ofili

Victoria Miro Gallery | Mayfair

The very idea of the Rothko Chapel has always bugged me. Do modern paintings really need to bear the weight of the world, and must their viewers contemplate with religious awe the paintings' failure to do so? Well, you can imagine how I felt on discovering that a large part of Chris Ofili's first show in England since winning the 1999 Turner Prize was, in all but name, the Ofili Chapel. A long, specially constructed interior, dimly lit, was lined on either side with a sequence of six paintings, each bathed in its own halo of light, leading as if in procession toward a single larger canvas at the front, like the theoria of apostles leading the eye toward the all-powerful Christ in some Byzantine basilica.

Admittedly, the imagery of the paintings evoked a mischievousness at odds with the enveloping air of reverence. Each painting in The Upper Room, 1999–2002 (a name chosen not only because this was the gallery's second floor but because Christ's last meal with his disciples occurred in the upper room of an inn), carries the hieratic image of a vessel-bearing monkey: a rhesus macaque, an animal described in the show catalogue as “loud, active, entertaining, fearsomely intelligent—the consummate cheeky monkey.” Each macaque, painted with a pattern of monochrome dots, sits against fields of gorgeously swirling hues put down in translucent layers mixing floral motifs and purely abstract figures, recalling, for instance, Paul Signac's bizarre portrait of Félix Fénéon. The large central canvas, the only one in which the monkey is seen head-on rather than in profile, is done in hieratic gold. Loud, active, entertaining? No, more like hushed and contemplative. But what a thing to contemplate, more funny strange than funny ha-ha—a bit unnerving, in fact, despite the visceral uplift provided by Ofili's command of shamelessly rich color. But what cult was meant to be celebrated in this chapel, beyond that of its maker's quirky, unaccountable brilliance?

Here and now, that could be enough. England seems desperate to claim a painting genius these days, if the enraptured reviews for Lucian Freud's retrospective, seemingly all containing the obligatory phrase “greatest living painter,” are any indication. To me, at least, Ofili seems a more promising candidate for the long run. The pleasure quotient is just so much higher, and for all Ofili's love of provocative gestures (yes, that elephant dung is still in the picture), his work cultivates a positive vibe that ultimately feels socially responsible, so The Guardian can place him—as it did in an edition of its Weekend Magazine this past summer—in the line of Blake and Hogarth. I just worry that he'll start resting on his laurels too soon. The second group of paintings in the show, which was titled “Freedom One Day,” pays homage to a pair of “afro-mantic” lovers who are depicted in a lush tropical setting painted exclusively in the Black Nationalist colors of red, black, and green. The imagery seems to beg for a kind of indulgent affection while functioning mainly as a vehicle for hyperactive technique, which in this case seems a bit slicker than it should be.

Barry Schwabsky