Fifteen years on, it’s hard to imagine how The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), Chris Ofili’s cheery painting in “Sensation,” the 1999 exhibition of Young British Artists, caused then-mayor Rudy Giuliani to try to shut down the Brooklyn Museum. Propped against the wall on two balls of elephant dung stuck with colored map pins that spell out “VIRGIN MARY,” the canvas practically shimmers, its glowing tangerine ground punctuated by butterflies formed of collaged pairs of buttocks taken from porn. Mary herself, a cartoonish black figure whose pale blue robes part to reveal an exposed breast represented by another ball of dung, exudes a goofy sweetness.
That canvas and other smart, jazzy early works in the first room of this cogent and spectacular mid-career survey, employ glitter, glossy resin, raised dots of paint, collaged photos and more dung to depict comic figures with almost psychedelic effects. Rodin…The Thinker (1997–98) features a dreamy-eyed, blowsy dame in lingerie striking an iconic pose, surely indebted to the work of Robert Colescott. A high-contrast riot of concentric whorls nearly subsumes her image. But these pictures can also bite. No Woman, No Cry (1998) symbolically portrays a weeping Doreen Lawrence, the mother of Stephen Lawrence, a young man murdered in a racist attack in London; each tear she sheds bears the likeness of her son. The crime remained unsolved for years, an open wound upon the body of British society, and Ofili’s portrait marries the artist’s particular brand of visual and material richness to pointed considerations of class, race and history.
This floor of the exhibition also includes a large selection of more than a hundred watercolors from Ofili’s charming but lightweight “Afromuse” series, single and double bust-length portraits of figures that evoke West African hairstyles and fashions. A smattering of sculpture with religious themes serves mainly to point out that Ofili is an exceptionally talented painter.
Above, on the museum’s third floor, nine large deep-blue-on-blue canvases occupy the heart of the show in a veritable Rothko Chapel: A dimly lit octagonal room with dark grey walls and matching plush carpet. Here, Ofili eschews collage and surface effects for straight painting that evokes night in the tropical lushness of his adopted Trinidad. Blue Riders (2006) shows two folkloric hussars mounted on ungainly equines, recalling the work of Haitian self-taught artists, while a pair of machete-wielding disembodied arms in Blue Stag (All Fours) from 2008–09 appear to be butchering a suspended animal carcass in a jungle reminiscent of Wifredo Lam. Difficult to see at first, these indigo fugues force us to slow down, their dark hues creating an intense mood of reverie, even while they leave us with an exhilarating sense of Ofili as a great master at work. This room is an absolute tour de force of contemporary painting. Yet even upon these brooding nocturnes, the world intrudes. Blue Devils (2014) appears to be a mesmerizing image of mysterious figures engaged in some sort of ritual until you realize that it depicts a police besetting a man in a hoodie.
Walls painted with washy foliage in blue and violet on the fourth floor hold canvases based on Trinidadian bar scenes and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. These latter were inspired by Titian and related to designs Ofili created for the sets and costumes of a ballet. The artist’s apparently prodigious knowledge of art history—and his remarkable ability to playfully engage it—comes to the fore in these works, chock-full of sly art-historical references. Henri Matisse seems a touchstone in many paintings, including Confession (Lady Chancellor) from 2007, a long-limbed, orange-haired, purple nude accepting a cocktail from someone outside of the painting. The style of this work also invokes the African-American painter Bob Thompson and another American, R.B. Kitaj, who spent most of his career in England. Ovid-Desire (2011–12) shows a semitransparent dancing couple, languidly dipping. Their sinuous lines, a boldly lozenge-patterned floor and a female nude seen in a picture-within-the-picture of an idyllic setting also refer to Matisse. But the female dancer’s exposed breasts with lemon-yellow nipples, her daintily pointed feet and the general air of decadence bring to mind Aubrey Beardsley, while Hans Bellmer seems to provide the inspiration of her ball gown, which falls in pink scallops like multiple breasts.
Visually ravishing, focused on mutable form and hedonistic pleasures, such works seduce with appealing pleasures, although they might also represent a slackening of Ofili’s attention to more immediately pressing concerns. One hopes that he has not stayed on the island too long. But making terrific paintings remains no small feat and even these voluptuary canvases, like so many others in this show, evince Ofili’s vast ambition, often impressively realized, to make art both gorgeous and urgent.—Joseph R. Wolin