(Photo: Horace Ové)

It has been several years since Rudy Giuliani catapulted English/African artist Chris Ofili into this country’s art adversarial conversation by trying to have Ofili’s work taken out of public view. It was the elephant dung on the Madonna painting. And of course the magazine images of female genitilia flying about like delicate butterflies. The mayor lost that case, and Ofili has continued his journey as an artist and as a touchstone for a lot of the complexities and (in some cases) effluvia of our cultural landscape.

His paintings are seductive. That can be both a pejorative as well as an asset. I have seen a few of his works that are so visually alive that I have been stopped in my tracks. Whoa! Not every one, but who does it right every time?

Ofili will be having a major show at the Tate Modern in a few weeks, and his resurfacing as reminded me to look again.

Here’s a great quote to contextualize Ofili’s work from a New York magazine article by Jerry Saltz from 2007:

In 2000, Ofili said, “I always think of the work as coming out of hip-hop culture … looking at things with no hierarchy … I am trying to bring in, not everything, but a lot of the stuff that has been left out … to bring something up out of the rubble that’s pleasing to look at.” Not only are many of Ofili’s painting’s “pleasing to look at,” but they act as conduits to his consciousness, the “rubble,” and the collective memory of painting itself. A good Ofili brings to mind Funkadelic album covers, William Blake, Zimbabwe rock painting, Sigmar Polke, Brazilian bead work, Op Art, carnival posters, Celestial Seasonings packages, Haitian voodoo figures, Australian Aborigine “dot paintings,” and Post-Impressionistic pointillism. Yet Ofili isn’t just some neo-primitive witch doctor folk-artist magician (except to the extent that all artists are). For me, Ofili and his good friend Peter Doig are the twin peaks of nineties’ English painting. Ofili put painting to some of its oldest uses: ancestor worship and defying taboo.

The Guardian‘s Gary Younge has run an interview with Ofili in preparation for the upcoming show. I love this excerpt from his piece:

Neither stoic, ascetic nor reclusive, Ofili became driven by a dual desire to protect his art and his sanity. You get the impression he needs to be forgotten if only to produce memorable work. There would be relatively long fallow periods where he would not do solo exhibitions for several years. “The studio is a laboratory, not a factory,” he says. “An exhibition is the result of your experiments, but the process is never-ending. So an exhibition is not a conclusion.”

This passage is in keeping with some of the best qualities of the Orozco exhibit currently at MOMA. You can read my review here.