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Chris Ofili in London

1 March, 2010

The entrance to the Chris Ofili exhibition at Tate Britain has a warning notice telling visitors ‘some people might find some works in this exhibition offensive,’ which is surely an understatement. In reality, pretty much everyone will find a lot of what’s in the show offensive, and that’s the point. Just about every piece rails at one social convention or another, and few of the pictures appear without a proud lump or two of Ofili’s trademark elephant dung (the early paintings all have stands made of varnished and painted dung – nice touch). It’s the anger and disgust that makes it work. Ofili plays with the idea of blacksploitation – he’s always walking the line between rejecting black stereotypes and celebrating black pop culture. Sex is another constant theme, especially exaggerated nudes of black women. Ofili’s ‘Virgin Mary’ (above), the one that got all the press after former mayor Rudy Giuliani complained that elephant dung was included in a picture of the holy mother, also appears in the show. What’s amazing is that the single lump of dung hung at her chest (Jesus, natch) is not nearly the most provocative thing about it, although that gets the most press. Collaged to the surface of the painting are lots of little photographs of spread vaginas, seemingly taken from porno magazines. Hard to see in a scan, but in person the mix is jarring to say the least.

One of the centerpieces of the show is the controversial installation ‘Upper Room,’ which turns out to be a beautiful wooden chamber at the end of a long dark passage. The cost of the wood alone must have been staggering. The interior opens up like a stylized temple from an Indiana Jones movie, with a single gold painted monkey ‘king’ at the end of the chamber, and a dozen smaller multi-colored monkeys on the side walls. It was strangely moving. I spent a while standing and sitting in different spots, trying to figure out why I liked it, and I’m still not sure.

As much as I appreciated the Tate show, my favorite Ofili was across town, in a small exhibition called ‘Thresholds’ that the painter Paula Rego put together for Whitechapel Art Gallery of works from the British Council art collection. It was a fun mix of things, from a Madame Yevonde photograph of a nude doing her ironing to Walter Sickert, Leon Kossuth, David Hockney, Graham Sutherland, Frank Auerbach, Gwen John, and other British greats. But the best for me by far was a tiny canvas of a black man with a huge afro by Ofili, not much more than an inch and a half tall, hung alongside the much bigger works by other artists, and screwed into the wall with security plates. It is a perfect bite-sized moment of subversion in an intriguing show.

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