An Artist's Gallery of Ideas: Chris Ofili's Watercolors
By CAROL VOGEL / The New York Times
Source: nytimes.com / Published: May 5, 2005
There are no Madonnas in "Chris Ofili: Afro Muses 1995-2005," an exhibition of more than 180 watercolors. Nor is there any elephant dung.
Mr. Ofili's first one-man show in New York may surprise museumgoers who have not seen his work since 1999, when a painting of a black Madonna with a clump of elephant dung on one breast caused an uproar. Denouncing the Ofili work among others as "sick stuff," Rudolph W. Giuliani, then the mayor, threatened to cut off the city subsidy to the Brooklyn Museum, where the painting was featured in "Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection."
Chris Ofili/Courtesy of David Zwirner
One of Chris Ofili's imaginary portraits of women, featured in his show "Afro Muses 1995-2005," at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Mr. Ofili, 37, says he has put all that behind him. And since that imbroglio, his career has steadily risen: he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale two years ago, and his work has entered the permanent collections of museums like the Tate in London and the Museum of Modern Art.
Yet with "Afro Muses," at the Studio Museum in Harlem, viewers finally get a peek at the way he works and thinks.
For 10 years now, Mr. Ofili has been making watercolors, each about 9Ŋ by 6Ŋ inches and produced in a single sitting. Predominantly heads of men and women, as well as some studies of flowers and birds, they are his way of unlocking ideas that may eventually become full-blown paintings.
"I've always had this intimate relationship with drawing," Mr. Ofili said in an interview at the Studio Museum, surveying dozens of watercolors that were about to be hung on the gallery walls. "They're a springboard."
While his paintings can take anywhere from a few months to a few years to complete, watercolors, he says, are a form of "instant gratification."
Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum, called the exhibition "a curator's dream." Rather than having to approach dozens of different collectors and museums to put the show together, she secured all 181 works from a single source: the artist.
Over the years, Mr. Ofili steadily squirreled the watercolors away in a box in his studio, pulling out this one or that one whenever he was seeking inspiration.
Ms. Golden said nobody knew the collection existed until she went to Mr. Ofili's studio in London two years ago to interview him for a catalog essay on the work that was to be shown in Venice. While discussing the paintings, he began showing her some examples of their genesis - the watercolors.
"That's when my curator's radar went off," Ms. Golden said. "I never imagined he had this corpus of work. He had no plans for them because they had never left his studio."
Photo: Librado Romero/The New York Times
Chris Ofili at the Studio Museum in Harlem during the installation of "Afro Muses 1995-2005," his show of the watercolors he has been privately doing for years.
The works, on view at the Studio Museum through July 3, now fill the main gallery. All the men and women depicted are whimsical in their expressions and their dress. The women, rendered mostly in three-quarter poses, are clad in colorful costumes with richly painted jewelry and somewhat fantastical hairdos. The men are generally shown in profile, some with ornate beards and decorative African-style garb.
As real as they seem, none of these people exist. They all grew out of Mr. Ofili's imagination. Some are inspired by images he spotted in magazines or on television or conjured up from subconscious impressions absorbed on the street or at a party.
Ms. Golden and Mr. Ofili have grouped many of the watercolors in an irregular grid across the gallery. "Since they're mostly people," Ms. Golden said, "we imagined them as a crowd."
The walls have been painted a tan shade Mr. Ofili chose for its calming effect. That hue is repeated in one of the mats in each frame.
On the side walls is a series of faces that Mr. Ofili calls "Harems." Each arrangement consists of one man with as many as four women on each side of him. Asked why he chose the configuration, he said, "They were destined to be together."
There is also a series of women with white lips that he calls "The Unkissed."
"I always loved the idea that lips would blush if kissed," he said. Hanging below the "Unkissed," are five suitors, all bearded and wearing what seems like regal garb. Each has the same face. "They're pretty much the same bearded guy," Mr. Ofili said.
One of the most unusual groups of watercolors in the show, titled "The Gardener," jointly depicts a man surrounded by five colorful birds perched on branches and three blooming flowers.
Asked whether the gardener exists, Mr. Ofili replied, "I'm sure somewhere."
Chris Ofili, A part of "The Gardener."