British artist Chris Ofili’s first museum survey in the United States debunks and transcends his unjustified and limiting reputation as an African diaspora-centric artist who once employed the medium of elephant dung. ‘Night and Day’ is a gathering long overdue, as only a major survey for this relatively young painter’s work could demonstrate his unusually diverse range, situating his unmistakably personal and major concerns with race and identity alongside pop culture, religion, mythology, art history, graphic art and design, colour, nature, the experience of encountering art, and painting itself.
Fittingly, ‘Night and Day’ begins with Ofili’s paintings from the mid-to-late 1990’s and from which he’s since moved on considerably in his art making, including the famous ‘No Woman, No Cry,’ (1998) made for his 1998 Turner Prize exhibition, and infamous ‘Holy Virgin Mary,’ (1996) among the first works Ofili was known for. Even as far back as these early works, most of the painter’s eventually consistent interests and themes are on display. In execution, however, they are about the most multimedia-inclined paintings one’s likely to encounter, and are all composed with coatings of resins, collage, acrylics, oils, glitter, and elephant dung balls. When seen from afar, the paintings appear flat and uncluttered, but when approached, the applied accumulations reveal themselves not only visually, but also spatially, and are only further accentuated by the pairs of dung ball supports or ‘frames,’ for each painting.
However, if inclinations abound in Ofili’s early works that echo a familiar late mid-20th century discourse that treats the canvas as an object and initiates dialogue between painting and sculpture, what follows – ‘Within Reach,’ selections from the British Pavilion at the 50th Venice Biennale made in collaboration with Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye - defy expectations. Although they’re also layered with accumulated materials, there’s a uniform colour scheme of red, black, and green based upon the Pan-African flag associated with the famed Marcus Garvey, and instead of acknowledging space around the paintings, the visual contents invite the viewer with the help of carefully arranged and prominent natural motifs and intense colours.
The paintings Ofili created after establishing residency in Trinidad two years later, display little semblance to his first major paintings of note. In the ‘Blue Rider’ series, it becomes apparent that his new home, most of all, has affected his art. Adhering to an austere yet rich colour scheme of darker tones revolving around blue, paintings such as ‘Blue Rider’ (2005) and ‘Iscariot Blues’ (2006) nonetheless continue to manifest Ofili’s preoccupations with nature, color, and the encounter with art. Whether due to the dim lighting provided by the museum for the room, or the already dark and nearly indistinguishable colors, the paintings are strangely immersive, and encourage one’s imagination towards experiencing nighttime in Trinidad, evoking the tropical humidity and dense vegetation of its countryside.
Closing out the exhibition, Trinidad continues to be foremost among inspirations for a collection of some of Ofili’s recent paintings, as a bright, colorful palette, and thematic explorations of mythologies both return in works such as ‘Ovid-Desire’ and ‘Ovid-Actaeon’ (2011-12). His penchant for employing graphic art elements may be found in possible homages to Matisse’s late collages, merged with his subjects. Meanwhile, concerns with nature and space seem to have receded into the conceptual background
Throughout his career, Ofili has engaged with issues ranging from racism to representations of women, from hip-hop to Christianity, and from nature to culture, by exploring and experimenting with the medium and tradition of painting. Viewing Ofili’s oeuvre en mass in Night and Day, what becomes most apparent is that despite the consistency – or inconsistency – of the variety of interests, concerns, and themes manifested in his art, and his experimentation with other mediums and means of expression, Ofili remains a painter foremost.