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The Elephant in the Room

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Except for two brooding “Blue Rider”–like beauties, Ofili has abandoned this device as well. In “Devil’s Pie,” he’s employing a more motley, discordant palette. Compositions are jagged and fragmentary; surfaces are jigsaws of thinly painted, saturated color; subject matter, while ardent, doesn’t knit the pictures together. Instead, there are strange traces of all sorts of art-historical DNA, including Jazz Age graphics, various early-twentieth-century modernist styles, Lyonel Feininger, stained glass, Ludwig Kirchner, Romare Bearden, Art Nouveau, Jacob Lawrence, and Bob Thompson. It’s like he’s a black Matisse or Gauguin. The compositional flatness, handling of space, staining, and off-colors also bring Doig to mind.

As always, Ofili’s deft drawing structures every move. Areas of paint are expertly laid down and held in place by carefully applied pinstripes of contrasting color. A narrow band of thalo green delineates a black coat sleeve, a gray line defines an arm, and so on. Ofili details these pictures the way car buffs detail their cars, and that lends the work a contemporary feel and creates optical pop. Still, the overall disunity causes the paintings to devolve into fragments or, occasionally worse, into poster design.

Some have said that Ofili has been living too far from the art world for too long, and that no one is saying no to him anymore. But Ofili, always a maverick, may be trying to see where only saying yes will lead. He knows this will mean periods of unevenness—now being one of those periods. Yet amid intense critical scrutiny and the distorting glare of the market, Ofili is doing something quite bold: He’s giving up his formulas and looking for new forms. Cynics will say all the work will sell anyway. Perhaps, but this kind of jadedness dismisses an artist for all the wrong reasons. Obviously, an unknown painter couldn’t mount a show this big and uneven at this gallery. In “Devil’s Pie,” Ofili is asking us to understand that an artist’s work is not only about a slice but about the whole pie—about a long journey and the big picture. He wants you to see the arc of a career, the experimental parts, not just chart-toppers. Ofili is trying to create his own history and context, and I would take any drawing or print here. Additionally, four of the paintings suggest numerous ways through the perilous straits he finds himself in. Two canvases have rich swirling surfaces of aluminum paint; another is layered with collage atop a surface of aluminum foil. Ofili is still a champion. It would be a huge mistake to think otherwise.

Devil’s Pie
Chris Ofili. David Zwirner. Through November 3.


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