When “Sensation,” the controversial exhibition of Young British Artists, came to the Brooklyn Museum 15 years ago, Chris Ofili’s painting The Holy Virgin Mary (1996)—an Africanized hip-hop Madonna propped on shellacked elephant-dung balls—set off another episode in our nation’s culture wars. But Ofili, a Manchester-born artist of Nigerian parentage, was hardly the naughtiest YBA.
“Night and Day,” Ofili’s first major U.S. survey, reveals the astounding range of his shape-shifting art, which refers to the history of Western and African art, literature, music, religion, craft, and psychedelia. With blatant decorativeness and subtle politics, his work can riff on Saint Sebastian as a bristly tribal power figure, on Matisse’s cutouts, or David Hammons’s snowballs. This show also reveals the subtext in Ofili’s work of identity politics and social critique. At the core of his art are the various meanings of blackness, even in the blues.
Ofili’s dizzying paint-beaded icons of the 1990s—including a black, female version of Rodin’s The Thinker and a giant phallic pimp, each propped on elephant turds with map-pin titles, and Turner Prize–winner No Woman No Cry (1998), dedicated to a black teen killed while waiting for a bus—help place his black Madonna in context. The stunning red/black/green series of radiating paintings that followed, based on the colors of Marcus Garvey’s pan-African flag, are as seductive/repulsive as Lucas Samaras’s early pin boxes.
Ofili’s night-vision installation of midnight-blue monochrome paintings, made after he moved to Trinidad in 2005, is a worthy if improbable successor to Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings. Blue Devils (2014) refers to the menacing blue devils of Paramin but depicts a nearly invisible black man in a hoodie, set upon by London policemen. This exhibition culminates in an installation of gorgeous new paintings depicting star-crossed lovers and divine revenge. Based on the tale of Actaeon and Diana from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, they are, to put it mildly, sensational.
A version of this story originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 78.