An immersive, powerful experience of large-scale colorful canvases sounds like a step back in time to the New York City of the 1950s and ’60s, when color field artists like Mark Rothko were trying to paint a sublime experience. This retrospective at the New Museum of Chris Ofili, the British-born, 46 year-old painter, is neither abstract nor transcendental, but in new ways it suggests similar values of color and painterliness. The three floors of the museum feature works from throughout the artist’s career in this decadent and lush exhibition on view through January 25.
The artist’s early provocative works with elephant dung, paintings from his installation at the British Pavilion done in the red, green, and black of the Pan-African flag, as well as a wall of watercolor portraits and a few choice (and for me surprising) sculptures are displayed roughly chronologically. These are all visually lush, intricately made, and well-worth a long look. What I enjoy very much about all the works in the exhibition is their merging of the figurative with the decorative in a way that, rather than eroding the content of the work, rather displaces it into a narrative realm of story and symbol. That is, rather than loosing content through the decorative and abstract–all highlighted by the colorful, wrought surfaces–new possibilities are opened up by it.
Certainly, that’s something in itself. But what I most enjoyed was the artist-designed staging of the paintings on the third and fourth floors of the museum. I have some pictures of the fourth floor, a room of recent paintings from 2007 to 2014 displayed on a surprise of violet patterned walls that look like blown-up gouache by Gaugin. While the pictures hardly do it justice, you can at least get a sense of the overall effect: how the walls encase the paintings like velvet in a jewelry box and how the patterned surfaces play against one another in such a sensuous manner that the figurative elements within it remains slippery and suggestive rather than didactic.
But for me the third floor held the most interesting experience. It’s also the most difficult to photograph. My photos of it, no flash allowed and taken in low light, all came out black, but I found one (below). Ofili designed a deep blue circular room to hang nine of his “The Blue Rider” paintings in. The paintings in this series, its name taken from the early Modernist journal in which Kandinsky preached his spiritual abstractions, are composed in deep shades of blue, apparently inspired by the colors of twilight and culture of Trinidad where the artist now lives.
Between the low light and dark colors it is difficult to see the paintings–but to great effect. Your vision adjusts to some degree. Only in walking around the paintings, however, was I able to make out the shapes as the light shifted on the surface. These paintings seem like spiritual and formal exercises in perception and the meaning of color on one hand, but, like all Ofili’s works, were not without content. Houses, people, landscape all glimmered out of the dusky twilight. The subject matter reference films, biblical stories, and scenes from everyday life in Trinidad as well as Ofili’s imagination. The difficult perceptual experience was highly rewarding as it forces the viewer to actively pursue the suggested narrative while moving around it. Rather than being distracting, it was provocative and elusive. And very beautiful.