Porn and Shit

Queueing up for my ticket to see the current Chris Ofili show at Tate Britain I noticed a sign warning potential visitors that the work on display would be “of a challenging nature”.

This struck me as an amusing turn of phrase.

If you are intending to spend time with contemporary art you should expect to be challenged. That’s what contemporary art is meant to do. If a show confirms everything you already know where’s the motivation to go and see it? Perhaps Tate Britain were trying to find a way of avoiding the suggestion that some visitors might find the work offensive. New York’s former mayor Rudy Giuliani clearly found Ofili’s work a few shades beyond “challenging”.

I first saw Ofili’s paintings in the 1997 Royal Academy show Sensation. For the uninitiated, Sensation was an exhibition of works owned by Charles Saatchi that announced the arrival of the YBA’s. An art student at the time I found it a giddying introduction to contemporary art. More here.

At the time, Sensation carried a disclaimer that read – “There will be works of art on display in the Sensation exhibition which some people may find distasteful. Parents should exercise their judgement in bringing their children to the exhibition. One gallery will not be open to those under the age of 18”. Heady days!

More than a decade on, Ofili’s work is no longer encumbered with the same hysteria. Which is great news for those new to his work who can approach it minus media fog.

Back in the days of Sensation it was exciting to be a fan of work that the general public thought was degenerate, but controversy does Ofili a huge disservice. Although his paintings are frequently composed of lumps of elephant dung, cut outs from porn magazines, brash pop culture references with a heavy emphasis on the gaudy and decorative, the paintings on display are fascinating ruminations on identity. Tom Lubbuck expands on that here.

The early paintings are beautiful, funny, and poignant (especially “No Woman No Cry”). They are old friends, greatest hits that I have seen on countless occasions so there were no real surprises until the final two rooms containing his most recent work.

Stripped of the glitter and protrusions the paintings in the penultimate room are stark. Painted in such deep blues it took an effort to discern detail, after the sensory overload of the preceding galleries I was left disorientated.

In the final room the paintings are painted in rich acid colours in the style of a futuristic Matisse. I’m still not sure what to make of these new paintings, I’m not sure if I think they are terrible or the best new paintings I’ve seen in a long while. I need time to digest them.

Although I didn’t feel seduced by the latest work, perhaps this is exactly what an artist should be doing at the point of their mid-career retrospective, confounding expectations and taking risks.

No Woman No Cry - 1998

The Raising of Lazarus - 2007

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