My expedition to the Lower East Side began at the New Museum to see “Night and Day,” the first retrospective in New York City of paintings by Chris Ofili, the artist of Nigerian descent who was born in London and currently resides in Trinidad. I was very keen to see the show because I’d heard so much about Ofili’s work, and Calvin Tompkins’ profile of him in the New Yorker recently also whetted my appetite. The show takes up three floors of the New Museum, and the work on the second floor captivated me the most — large, textured, sexy brightly colored witty canvases with other materials collaged in with the paint. They’re definitely worth seeing in person, close up.
Of course, Ofili gained some notoriety in New York in 2005 when a work of his called “The Holy Virgin Mary” appeared in a group show at the Brooklyn Museum and was attacked, sight unseen, by Mayor Rudy Giuliani as blasphemous, based on sensationalized descriptions of the piece in the tabloid press. One of Ofili’s key materials is elephant dung — he uses dried balls of it like furniture legs to rest many of his large canvases on, and one of the Virgin Mary’s breasts was represented by a similar clump of elephant dung. That whole controversy was an embarrassing episode for New York City and Giuliani, and “Night and Day” frames it beautifully by standing “The Holy Virgin Mary,” a somewhat provocative young man’s piece, far from Ofili’s finest work, next to a very strong piece called “No Woman No Cry.”
Taking its title from the Bob Marley song, the painting was inspired by yet another episode of a young black man killed by police in London many years ago. You can see here that the mother’s necklace and the footrests for the painting are all made of…well, I realize that in the course of Brooklyn Museum controversy the press learned to refer to the material as “dung,” a polite word that can be printed in family newspapers. But one of the pieces in “Night and Day” explains how early in his career Ofili made an installation/performance on the street in London selling what he explicitly labeled “Elephant Shit.” At the New Museum we see a tiny little piece called “Shithead,” featuring elephant shit with baby’s teeth and some clumps of Ofili’s own hair turning it into a grinning scheisskopf. So all along, Ofili’s attitude about the stuff has been witty, not just folkloric. On the second floor there are several canvases depicting a black action hero he invented named Captain Shit. I very much enjoyed this ghostly/amusing one called The Naked Spirit of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars:
His female figures are fierce, voluptuous goddesses — my favorite is simply titled She:
Strangely, the lighting for this exhibition is shockingly poor — the strong overhead lighting casts a lot of glare on the canvases. On the third floor is a room of recent very dark paintings that are almost impossible to see anyway, and the lighting makes the experience of communing with them worse. On the fourth floor are a series of paintings inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, less interesting to me than this piece called Lime Bar, which includes an Ofili self-portrait (apparently in Trinidad he bartends part-time at a friend’s bar):
I was fascinated by Ofili’s rendition of the Anunciation, a huge sculpture with a black angel and a gold Madonna, fused at the mouth like Rodin’s famous sculpture The Kiss:
On the fifth floor is a small sidebar, “When Shadows Were Shortest,” about Ofili’s sets and costumes for an opera based on the myth of Diana and Acteon — I loved this costume for a shadowy hound-creature :
Afterwards, we went for a quick tasty bite at Pearl & Ash, the cozy wine bar right across the street on the Bowery.
Then it was time to mosey down to the Abrons Arts Center to see the opening night of my friend Keith Hennessy’s Bear/Skin in the American Realness festival. Born in Canada and based primarily in San Francisco, Hennessy is a highly skilled dancer, performance artist, and nouveau cirque acrobat; he is also a veteran social activist, community organize, and now credentialed art historian, so his work tends to incorporate an unusual density of verbal commentary and visual imagery. In the American Realness catalogue, here’s the description: “Motivated by grand spectacle and ambitious prayer, Bear/Skin appropriates Nijinsky’s choreography for Le Sacre du Printemps (1915) to consider Modernism’s dependence on appropriations of the indigenous, folk, exotic and oriental to ask questions about ritual and art today.” But no such summary does justice to the collage that Hennessy performs or the relentless intellectual dance he does, introducing theoretical points of view and critiquing them at the same time. He starts with a poem about action movies as “medicine,” riffing on the screen depiction of violence against cops as both a cathartic response to real-life police brutality and a heroic mythology. While seeming to be very casual about it, Hennessy sets up the conditions for a pagan performance ritual, donning a bear suit in such a way that conjures images both of ancient shaman and contemporary urban homeless person. There’s an extended verbal commentary about “the economy of suicide,” as it disproportionately impacts the young, the elderly, and the military. Setting up his laptop for occasional glancing reference, Hennessy duplicates a section of Nijinsky’s original choreography for Le Sacre du Printemps. Then he changes into an elaborate multilayered costume — a three-minute interval during which the audience is invited to commune with one another under the kind of mylar space blankets marathon runners and park-bench sleepers use to warm themselves — to do an entirely invented sort of shamanic ritual dance of transformation.
Afterwards we had dinner in the warm basement of Galli on Rivington Street and talked about the show and its many sources and layers.