New York

View of “Chris Ofili: Night and Day,” 2014–15. From left: No Woman, No Cry, 1998; The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996. Photo: Maris Hutchinson/EPW.

View of “Chris Ofili: Night and Day,” 2014–15. From left: No Woman, No Cry, 1998; The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996. Photo: Maris Hutchinson/EPW.

Chris Ofili

View of “Chris Ofili: Night and Day,” 2014–15. From left: No Woman, No Cry, 1998; The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996. Photo: Maris Hutchinson/EPW.

CHRIS OFILI is one of a tiny handful of living artists whose work has, however briefly, entered what passes in this country for “political discourse.” In the more than fifteen years since the tempest in a teapot initiated by Rudolph Giuliani’s “outrage” at the inclusion of Ofili’s painting The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996, in the 1999 exhibition “Sensation” at the Brooklyn Museum, no other artist has been framed for such blasphemy. Meanwhile, Ofili’s approach to painting and his philosophical agenda have been quietly evolving, encompassing both more personal and more historical areas of association. “Chris Ofili: Night and Day” at the New Museum laid out the artist’s case, making clear how ill-suited this thoughtful and adventurous artist was to the role of social iconoclast, the status-quo-disturbing aspects of his work notwithstanding.

Ofili and the curators faced honestly the awkwardness of the museum’s galleries for the display of a continuous chronological survey, and on three floors they installed three distinct, and environmentally specific, presentations of paintings from different periods and groups, with smaller side galleries devoted to drawings and a few sculptures scattered throughout. (If one has any complaints about this approach, they concern the treatment of these last categories, which in this context came off more as “projects” than as integral aspects of Ofili’s larger train of thought. He clearly has a contribution to make as a sculptor, and drawing may be deeply braided into his method of developing painting ideas, but neither of those arguments was made here.)

The earliest material, installed on the second floor of the museum, gave an overview of the period when Ofili’s work began to be widely seen, beginning in the mid-1990s and ending with a thematically linked series of paintings from the early 2000s. Together these groups constitute the “elephant dung period” of Ofili’s work, which was so distressing to “America’s mayor.” Pictorially, the works buzz like neon signs, and materially, they evince an exoticism and an intensity that extend far beyond the offending ordure. The artist’s inspirations and affinities at the time encompassed European and non-Western art history, modernism and folk art, so-called fine art and so-called craft, religious art and comic books, archaic African sculpture and rap culture, all of which echo in the spirit of these paintings. The dung balls, hard dry things about the size of a grapefruit that are purportedly considered sacred in cultures that traditionally worship elephants, function as literal feet for the paintings (much the way artists in their studios frequently lean paintings against the wall propped on bricks or empty paint cans) and are also attached to the surfaces (sparely) in various relationships to the overall pictorial structure. Usually they have words written on them. The images themselves are built of layers of poured resin, paint, glitter, pointillist dots, drawings, collaged patterns of cutout body parts from porn magazines, and of course the dung. Most of the paintings are composed around large, graphically legible central characters and are as interesting to look at from across the room as they are at close range.

Ofili’s work at this time raised questions about maleness, blackness, lust, and virility, and, by extension, about archetypes of femaleness and the graphics of strength and power—all with an almost lurid enthusiasm for the possibilities available to painting. The mesmerizing series of red, green, and black paintings on African themes from the early 2000s shifted things to a different key, darker and richer, much less rambunctious, and deeply romantic. The weightier palette, based on the colors of the flag of Marcus Garvey’s Pan-African movement, accompanied a leap in the narrative possibilities of Ofili’s subjects, as well as a greater interest in the expressive possibilities of darkness and blackness as both experienced and depicted.

On the next floor up, the darkness was quite literal, and initially somewhat confusing. A series (begun in 2006) of extremely murky, close-in-value, more or less blue paintings, all of a similar format, was displayed in one large room under very dim light. As one’s eyes adjusted to the situation, the shadowy elements of characters and stories emerged—a man hanged, horsemen, dense forest, profiles of buildings and animals—but the feeling of trying to penetrate stygian night never really lifted. Without iconographic assistance, one’s understanding of what’s represented in the pictures remained fragmentary. The works’ chromatic complexity continuously increased as the duskiness slowly receded, and one felt this process could go on indefinitely.

With these tableaux, Ofili was pursuing a different way to work on his paintings, and also a slightly different way for his paintings to work. The physical eccentricity of the earlier pictures is gone—these are fairly standard paintings on canvas, hanging on the wall—and is replaced by a stubborn specificity. The physical, optical experience of looking is conflated with the emotional tone of the artist’s subjects, which feel, paradoxically, more temporally distant and of more intimate significance. The effect is a bit like a highly unlikely yet philosophically quite complete hybrid of the Rothko Chapel’s rigor and drama and Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly paintings, which assume a widespread recognition of their narrative premise. This fusion of two frequently opposed but almost atavistically determined ways of considering pictorial art was deeply satisfying, and it’s a shame the series isn’t permanently installed somewhere.

The paintings in the last gallery are chronologically the most recent and are far more diverse in appearance than the earlier series in the exhibition. But the walls of this space are treated like an enormous theater backdrop, covered with a continuous lavender cascade of painted flowers, so the canvases together occupy an environment. Many are inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses and by several Titian pieces on the same theme, but formally and stylistically Ofili seems to be digging deeper and deeper into certain lesser-traveled tributaries of modernism: One catches glimpses of Toulouse-Lautrec, Beardsley, Munch, Chagall, Dufy, and Bonnard, as well as Romare Bearden and Eldzier Cortor, but there’s nothing quotational or arch here. Ofili has found a weird, surprisingly symbolist painterly mode quite different in tone from earlier periods in his own development, and also from most other painting being made today.

The most inspiring thing about Ofili’s public response to the Giuliani diatribes back in the day was his refusal to explain or defend his painting, apparently feeling that he’d already said it all in the painting itself. This exhibition was permeated by a belief that painting can speak—has always spoken—without becoming just a talking point, and that its deepest layers of content can partake equally of the historical and the autobiographical without needing to choose. As the saying goes, all politics is personal. A big part of Ofili’s achievement has been to show us what this truism might actually look like.

Carroll Dunham is an artist based in New York.