A more descriptive subtitle for Chris Ofili: Day and Night, the New Museum’s dazzling survey of Chris Offili’s paintings, sculptures, and works on paper, would be “Day and Night and Day.” For the show, co-curators Massimiliano Gioni, Gary Carrion-Murayari, and Margot Norton have installed 35 large-scale paintings, dozens of works on paper, and four sculptures in loosely chronological sequence. As visitors move up from the second floor to the third and then the fourth, the pieces shift from bright and bold to sober and somber, and then back to riotously polychromatic in the freshest canvases.
The second floor houses the best-known works, including “The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996), of Rudy Giuliani vs. Brooklyn Museum fame (and which has its own dedicated security guard standing next to it) and pieces from Ofili’s exhibition at the British Pavilion in the 2003 Venice Biennale. The opportunity to see so many of his large canvases from the 1990s up close — with their seemingly infinite layers of paint, collage, glitter, duct tape, and other materials, punctuated by volleyball-sized clumps of elephant dung that are likewise bedazzled — is one of the greatest treats at any New York City museum this season.
Alongside these famous works are a pair of large sculptures continuing Ofili’s engagement with the religious subject matter of the Western art historical canon. His androgynous and pained “Saint Sebastian” (2007), pierced through with spears and speckled with giant nails, is hard to look at. “Annunciation” (2006), his take on the Biblical scene during which the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she’s pregnant, is outrageously erotic and appropriately sensual with its tangle of smoothed and rough bronze limbs.
Rounding out the second floor is a selection of 90 small watercolor and pencil paintings from Ofili’s Afro Muses series of small portraits. Perusing this partial reassembly of a 2005 exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, with the innumerable variations in the figures’ faces, hairstyles, and clothes, could easily fill an afternoon. The artist often experimented with these small-scale images while developing characters for larger paintings like those on view alongside “The Holy Virgin Mary.”
The transition from the second to the third floor mimics the sensation of passing from day to night. Upstairs in the central room is the Ofili Chapel, an apparent riff on the Rothko Chapel. In dim lighting viewers’ eyes gradually glean more details from a series of nine paintings rendered in black, deep purple, midnight blue, and other nocturnal hues. The reverential setting and often dark subject matter here — the massive paintings include a portrayal of a lynching and a couple being held captive by soldiers — stand in stark contrast to the mood of playful punditry and art historical mix-and-match found one floor below. The curators attribute the artist’s shift in imagery and palette to his relocation to Trinidad in 2005. The move inspired the artist to pursue “a way of working that was less complex and maybe less visible,” he’s quoted as saying in the wall text.
Which isn’t to say that the third floor doesn’t have a potentially sacrilegious remix of biblical imagery of its own. Alongside a series of automatic drawings, which Ofili created as a ritualistic exercise to tune out his analytical thinking before stepping into the studio, hangs “The Almighty Shadow” (2007), which is either a suggestively stylized crucifix or the most well-endowed rendering of Jesus Christ in all of art history.
The stairwell between the third and fourth floors houses the exhibition’s oldest work, a small and monstrous sculpture titled “Shithead” from 1993. Made from human teeth and bunches of the artist’s hair affixed to a small clump of elephant dung, it is, for my money, infinitely more disturbing than anything Ofili has made in the 21 years since.
While the second floor showcases Ofili’s postcolonial takes on subjects from medieval and Renaissance art, the fourth floor (in my opinion, the other “Day” absent from the exhibition’s title) has him taking on the giants of European modernism. Here you’ll find his riffs on Matisse (“Ovid-Actaeon,” from 2011–12), Klimt (“The Healer,” from 2008), Picasso (“Cocktail Serenader,” from 2014), and others. The room’s walls, covered in purple jungle imagery by the Newburgh-based Scenic Art Studios, Inc., make explicit the engagement with Paul Gauguin that runs throughout Ofili’s oeuvre.
Tucked into a corner of the New Museum’s fifth floor, the concurrent exhibition Chris Ofili: When Shadows Were Shortest documents the artist’s 2012 collaboration with the UK’s Royal Ballet and National Gallery, Diana and Actaeon. The three full costumes included here, with their sharply contrasting colors, streamlined forms, and inventive materials, hark back to the works on the second floor and provide a fitting bookend to this buoyant but erratic overview of Ofili’s output.
Gioni, Carrion-Murayari, and Norton portray Ofili as a voracious re-interpreter of the canon, continually spicing up literature, painting, and sculpture. My appetite for the work waned as I traveled up the museum, though. Nothing he’s made since the late 1990s matches the vitality, curiosity, and daring of the works on the second floor.
Chris Ofili: Day and Night continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, New York) through January 25, 2015. Chris Ofili: When Shadows Were Shortest continues there through February 1, 2015.