(I couldn’t find the actual piece of art described in this story online, the one below is a nice example of Ofili’s work though…cd)
Chris Ofili Paintings of Dung-Adorned Monkeys Dazzle in London
By Martin Gayford
Sept. 27 (Bloomberg) — These days, the transition from enfant terrible to establishment figure can be swift.
When “Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection” was shown at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, New York reverberated with shock. The most scandalous exhibit was Chris Ofili’s painting,“The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996), decorated with dried elephant dung and adorned with pornographic clippings. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani denounced it and a vandal attacked it.
Now, the most talked-about exhibit in the new BP British Art Displays at London’s Tate Britain is Ofili’s “The Upper Room,” a self-contained installation of painting and architecture on the theme of the Last Supper. Christ and the disciples are represented by 13 paintings of rhesus macaque monkeys, resting on balls of the artist’s favored exotic manure.
This time, there has been no mention of the word blasphemy. The only discussion centers on whether it was proper for the Tate to buy a costly piece from an artist who also sits on the museum’s board of trustees.
How much the Tate paid has not been disclosed. A single Ofili painting, “Afrodizzia,” sold for $1 million in May at Phillips de Pury & Co. in New York. The embarrassment was increased by the fact that the trustees in general, and Ofili personally, had exhorted artists to donate work to the Tate gratis, as the institution is strapped for cash.
Leaving that surprising kerfuffle aside, the appearance of “The Upper Room” at Tate Britain, like the Tracey Emin room last year and the unveiling of Marc Quinn’s sculpture, “Alison Lapper Pregnant” on Trafalgar Square, signals the arrival of the Sensation Generation among the ranks of the great and the good. Emin has recently been heard remarking that she wouldn’t mind being made a Dame. It’s a joke, yet only just. In reality, nothing is more probable than that she will get her wish.
Ofili, still only 37, has already been featured as the U.K. representative at the Venice Biennale (in 2003), one of the highest accolades an artist can receive. And, looking at “The Upper Room” again, one can hardly deny that he deserved it. The work consists not just of a group of pictures, but of a complete environment, designed by Ofili in collaboration with an architect, David Adjaye.
You walk up a wooden ramp into a long space, also constructed of wood, with curved ends. The lighting is subdued. Here the sumptuously rich paintings lean against the wall, each on its twin pedestals of varnished and painted elephant poop. That notorious feature of Ofili’s work is not — and is not intended to be — shocking to look at.
Monkeys in Color
We wouldn’t know where it came from if the artist hadn’t told us. His motive in using this unconventional material, he has said, is to include something from Africa in his work (Ofili was born in Manchester, but is of Nigerian descent). The notion of employing the excrement of pachyderms in his work came to him when he traveled to Zimbabwe on a scholarship in 1992.
The overwhelming impression of “The Upper Room” series is of light and color. The pictures are a set of color variations; the basic design of each — except the big monkey at the end –is the same, yet the chromatic harmony is always different. Inscribed on each is a title, in Spanish for some enigmatic reason, “Mono Rojo” (or Red Monkey), “Mono Verde” (or green Monkey), and so on across the spectrum.
They are almost edibly attractive and in a similar range of colors to confectionery: Turkish-delight pinks, translucent ivories like nougat, blacks resembling licorice.
The reason Ofili has stirred such interest has nothing to do with the waste products of large mammals. It is because he has found a new solution to the old conundrum: how to make a painting that is not photographic, yet not abstract either.
Ofili’s pictures are not illusionistic — there is no depth or volume in them. They are more like enamels or stained glass. Their surfaces are raised not only by the occasional blob of Dumbo dropping, but also by little pins which create an effect like bead work, and by glitter. The result looks quirky, and somehow African, although the drawing of the monkey repeated on each painting is actually derived from Andy Warhol.
If there is a question mark over Ofili’s work, it’s not whether he is merely shocking or outrageous, it’s whether his paintings are becoming too sumptuously decorative. His subsequent project, for the Venice Biennale, involved placing a new ceiling of green-and-red glass over the British Pavilion. The effect of this, with Ofili’s paintings, suggested a sort of neo-Art Nouveau in a tropical mood.
There’s no question that “The Upper Room” is an enjoyable visual experience and that Ofili has succeeded in his aim of creating not just a contemplative refuge, a sort of Britart chapel. More dubious is what one is intended to contemplate within it. Does he, for example, intend a genuine religious reference? If so, what is it? Should we meditate on the monkey-ness of man or on the possible divinity of monkeys?
In an accompanying film, Ofili remarks that he thinks religion is an important matter, without explaining. Leaving that aside, there is no doubt that “The Upper Room” is a successful marriage of painting and architecture. To come up with that in 21st-century Britain, is a considerable achievement.
“The Upper Room” runs through May 1, 2006.
The British Art Displays at Tate Britain are sponsored by BP Plc.