New York

Chris Ofili

Although Chris Ofili’s recent show, “Afro Margin,” was grandly installed in one of David Zwirner’s soaring galleries, it consisted simply of a modest suite of eight pencil drawings, made between 2004 and 2007. The materials, too, were pared down in comparison with his previous work—no superheated color or reflective resins, no glitter, no elephant dung. This did not preclude the visual syncopation for which Ofili is famous. Still, “Afro Margin” emphasized, or resynthesized, two motifs long of interest to the British artist: the hypertrophic Afro head and the cascade of scintillant dots. Skillful and suggestive in spite of their slightness, the drawings demonstrate what Ofili can do minus his main means. “Recession art,” some might murmur. Maybe, but more important, the series apparently serves to screen a transition in the artist’s work; according to the catalogue, this is the last time he will use Afro heads. The drawings also accompany a geographic shift, away from the art capitals where Ofili’s reputation was established: Shortly after the series was begun, the artist moved to Trinidad. Clearly, margins and centers remain on his mind.

Each image in the series (also titled “Afro Margin”) presents vertical rows of repeating elements that, from a few paces off, present abstract black circles and oblongs; these alternate with passages of curving concentric lines that flow sideways while also stacking up and down. The finely patterned marks beckon the viewer closer, until the black blobs resolve as tiny yet ballooning masses of hair, under which hang notional faces. Some drawings boast more than one row of ’fros, and some heads are bigger or bushier than others. The relative weight of black and white space changes from sheet to sheet; the expanse of rivulet-like lines narrows or widens and is more or less unruly; the chains or skeins of heads slide toward one or the other edge of a given page. This formal exercise in difference-in-repetition is what drives the drawings.

Of course, as the abstraction shape-shifts to figuration, it also implies a social statement having to do with relation, proliferation, perhaps genetic mutation. As linked shapes, the heads invoke family trees, totem poles, and catacombs, while the similarity of the faces—grinning golems, skull-like smileys—suggests persistence unto the nth generation. Whether such extension brings suffering or triumph is unclear. The ramifying ovoid lines are like auras or thought bubbles emanating from the heads, or like bellies, breasts, and eyes displaced from their crania. At the same time, topographical and organic metaphors—alluvial fans, ridged shells, sea polyps, shock waves—are pronounced. Here stretched and there squashed, the hair, as usual in Ofili’s oeuvre, is imbued with a scatological or even phallic intensity, writing a perverse joke into the otherwise delicate images. People, the drawings hint, are made of the same funky-lovely/dumb-complex material as plants and mountains; hair or dirt, protein or fiber, shit or mineral all organize into forms that relate to one another modularly. And inscriptions are made of this basic black stuff, too: As racialized emoticons, the heads read also as caricatural notation, a musical score or cartoon bar code whose message is yet another joke, about sanctification or impartiality—the heads in “Afro Margin” are justified in multiple senses. This type of open-ended syntactical or coded diagramming—which must be read as well as looked at—lends itself particularly well to black marks on white paper. It will be interesting to see if it recurs when Ofili returns to the texture and color of paint.

Frances Richard