In my first year of undergrad, an art history professor wisely observed the obvious: great painters frequently steal the best moments from master artworks and incorporate them into their own. The artist’s ability to gracefully quote another remains among the most important in his or her skill set, namely because it’s much more difficult than it appears. A fine evocation requires not only the eye and intelligence to identify work worth the investigation but the technical ability to execute it well.
Among the better examples of this within the contemporary fine art scene, Chris Ofili’s current show at David Zwirner, “Devil’s Pie”, brings to mind the best figure work of Henri Matisse. Similarly interested in primitivism, Ofili paints flat shapes with a fauve-inspired palette, and even his surfaces, which were once thickly adorned with paint and resins, now more closely resemble the spare canvases of the great Modern master. Coincidently, Matisse offers a particularly apt reference point, as he also drew heavily from Eastern art. Is it an irony informed with a sense of play of revenge: a black artist seeks to reimagine black artmaking through the lens of a privileged white artist, who himself pilfered Eastern forms?
Paintings such as Douen’s Dance, Lazarus (dream) and Confession draw the most specific connections to Matisse, less in the terms mentioned above than in their simple use of flat color fields. Ofili also provides a number of drawings evoking the painter; a brilliant series, easy to miss in the mix of giant paintings, suggests that Ofili begins with a line drawing and works up the paintings from there, repeating units of tiny, penciled, Afro’ed heads to construct a larger figure. This device cleverly gestures towards a fictive and highly stylized representation of a black community composed of equally fictive and homogenous parts. Though I suspect the strong formalist aesthetic in the pictures may ultimately eclipse the content of the work.
It should be noted that Ofili maintains his keen interest in sex, a subject that in tandem with religious iconography and elephant dung actually did engender discussion in 1999 when Mayor Guilliani called it “sick stuff” and attempted to shut down the Brooklyn Museum for its display. I’m not convinced the debate did much to illuminate the public’s understanding of Ofili’s work, but it’s nice to see that the heated public discussion didn’t seem to significantly change the direction of the artist’s work. In fact, the strongest works in “Devil’s Pie” were the erotic drawings Black Milky Way, which elegantly incorporate the aforementioned Afro heads, now completely blackened, to create stars around a naked couple with swirling pubic hair. The heads were also used in Adam, Benjamin, Caleb, Daniel, Ephraim, Frank, and Gideon(7 brides for 7 bros), a frontal portrait of a female nude. That said, both bronze sculptures of a woman and angel fucking were weak, the polished bronze women a little too cheaply rendered and easily positioned to maintain the viewer’s interest for any length of time. Perhaps any artist given two of the three massive gallery spaces at David Zwirner should be cut some slack. After all, the ability to reference can never wholly replace artistic consistency.