British artist Chris Ofili has long been a source of controversy. His detractors have included the mayor of New York as well as a man who threw white paint on one of his pieces at the Brooklyn Museum (the famous Virgin Mary piece with elephant dung). But despite the bombast and apparent sacrilege, Ofili’s work also includes a serious, embodied spirituality, argues Charles Pickstone. We asked Charles—an award-winning art writer who is also the vicar of the predominantly Afro-Carribean parish of Catford in southeast London—about why an artist like Ofili is worth appreciating.
Image: Culture wars aside, what would you say to a person who sincerely wants to understand and appreciate this work, but can’t get past the shock tactics?
Charles Pickstone: The exuberance of a gifted young painter will often lead him to take particular pleasure in demolishing the idols of a previous generation. But in Ofili’s case, there is a seriousness evident even in his most iconoclastic work that betrays a deep human concern—even compassion. No Woman, No Cry, for example, is a remarkable tribute to the dignity of a British woman whose son has been murdered in a racist attack, while some of his nudes are, unlike many of the safer, more repressed images typical of academia, celebrations of human sexuality in all its frankness and frailty. Ofili is a superb painter, but it’s as if at times he is almost embarrassed by his talent, and the shock tactics are a sort of decoy to distract the unwary viewer.
Image: Besides the signature use of elephant dung, there are all those porno cut-outs. He uses them in such surprising ways that it takes a moment to realize what you’re looking at. Is there anything more than shock value at work here?
CP: The most famous example is probably Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary where an African Madonna figure is surrounded by putti that turn out, on closer examination, to be pornographic details cut out of magazines. While on the one hand quite shocking, when the viewer realizes what they are (and I think many viewers, because of the context of the picture’s title, fail to see them) they are a splendid mockery of all those saccharine Botticelli-style angels that have clogged up western devotional art for five hundred years. And on the other hand, I am convinced that despite Ofili’s professed enjoyment of blaxploitation movies and his studio’s location at one of London’s seediest addresses, the painting is also the subliminal prayer of an ex-Roman Catholic altar boy for some protection from these darker forces—much as Picasso’s sculpture has been described as an “art of intercession,” their creation may be an act of protection against his demons.
Image: What drew you to Ofili’s work, and why did you want to write about him for Image in particular? Why does he belong in our pages?
CP: Above all, and despite the company he keeps, Ofili is a champion of humanist painting. It seems to me that he reaffirms the profound human values of compassion, anger, wonder, humor, and simple enjoyment of surface and texture, color and line—especially when enfleshed. It might be suggested (though Ofili himself never talks about this directly) that this is in no small part due to his Christian upbringing. The strength of growing up in any good religious tradition is that, even when later rejected, it gives a framework in which to celebrate the potential of any aspect of the creation for richness and deep narrative. And because Christianity, of all the religions, celebrates the flesh above all else as being the locus of God’s ultimate act of self-revelation, it strikes me that Ofili’s always sensuous art may give rise to images or metaphors that could renew the great Christian image of incarnation.
Image: Comedy isn’t something we much associate with contemporary gallery and museum art, but Ofili seems to embrace it with all he’s got. Could you talk a little about humor in his work, and its role in contemporary art in general?
CP: The young Ofili takes delight in going against all that is fashionable in art and in mainstream culture. And one must admit that there are plenty of targets for his high spirits in the earnest seriousness of the contemporary art world, with its long words and overload of critical theory. Its political correctness has often been compared to the moral censorship of the Puritans; and as a good Catholic, Ofili is happy to drive a coach and horses through it. (“Mine is not a PC project…. I’m trying to make serious things you can laugh at.”) Indeed, there is plenty of humor in the art world—but rarely is it as accessible (and as funny) as this.
Image: Some have accused him of being gimmicky, and in your essay you talk about his desire to shock as being typical of a young artist. Now that he’s forty-two, how have you seen his work change over the last decade and a half?
CP: Since Ofili’s move to Trinidad, there has been a dramatic shift in his style. One can sense a desire to revisit some of the earlier themes but to engage them in greater depth. By no means are all these later works so successful, in my view—but that is one of the problems of a big retrospective exhibition like the one at the Tate last year: the earlier works can be carefully selected; the most recent tend to be an assortment of whatever is to hand. Ofili is certainly continuing to explore; whether the challenge of now being an insider in the art world, and approaching mid-life, is one he will be able to meet as he attempts to break new ground, will be interesting to observe.
Image: We find that good, accessible art writing is rare and difficult, and yet you manage it, and you’ve been recognized for it. What does good art writing do, in your opinion? Or, what do you try to do when you set out to write about art?
CP: There’s a curious overlap between writing about art and doing theology. An artist, through his images, often communicates simultaneously on a great number of different levels, while the writer, limited to the very linear medium of words, has to try to analyze images logically and sequentially but then hand them back to the viewer in all their fullness—much as a good theologian seeks to do some small justice to the infinite mystery of God using the very finite means of words while praying that his or her reader will pass through their words to the Godhead with their vision of God’s glory enhanced and not diminished. In both cases, there’s the terrible struggle of exploring the multi-dimensional (in the case of God, infinitely dimensional) with one’s hands tied behind one’s back. The great art critic is one who is able to use mere words so effectively that the amazement of the viewer before the artwork is enhanced rather than (as so often) diminished. You might say that, at its best, art criticism is a form of doxology.