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NEW YORK, 31 OCTOBER 2007Turner Prize winner (1998) Chris Ofili is back in town with a solo show at David Zwirner in Manhattan's Chelsea district. The British artist gained notoriety with his infamous elephant dung-covered Virgin Mary painting, which scandalized the art world. A year later, The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) was the source of an even bigger uproar in America where it was on view as part of the exhibition Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection at the Brooklyn Museum. Rudy Giuliani , then mayor of New York City condemned the art in the show as sacrilegious and offensive, in particular Ofili's painting and the whole affair soon mushroomed into a breathless media frenzy, demonstrations by outraged Roman Catholics, long lines at the museum box office and a noisy lawsuit in which the Republican mayor threatened to cut off funding for the Brooklyn Museum. The lawsuit also charged that the exhibition at the  Brooklyn Museum of Art had been financed by companies and individuals with direct commercial interest in the British art works. More specifically, the lawsuit accused the museum of conspiring with the owner of the Sensation collection, Charles Saatchi, to inflate the value of the British art works sent to America for the show. And while Mr. Giuliani's attorneys later dropped the conspiracy issue, the spectre of questionable business ethics remained. Since then, Chris Ofili, Damien Hirst,  the Chapman Brothers and other Young British Artists (Y.B.A.) enjoy major careers  and strong sales to contemporary art clients in London, Basel, New York and Miami Beach . Chris Ofili represented the United Kingdom at the 50th Venice Biennale 2003.

Entitled Devil’s Pie from the D’Angelo single and on view until 3 November Chris Ofili continues, in a variety of media, his active engagement with art history and traditions of representation

In addition to 15 paintings, Ofili has created six sculptures in bronze for the show in Chelsea. Two of these works tackle the subject of The Annunciation , when, according to Biblical accounts, the Angel Gabriel revealed to the Virgin Mary that she would bear the Son of God; one sculpture depicts the couple kneeling and the other standing, capturing perhaps two different moments or two distinctive ways of imagining the interaction. In both sculptures, the dark matte bronze of the Angel contrasts the smoothly polished, gleaming bronze of the Virgin, underscoring the psychological drama which unfolds between his subjects. While the reflective surface readily conjures the idea of purity, often associated with the figure of Mary, it is the darker bronze of the Angel that is technically the less treated, and thus purer of the two metals, potentially challenging viewers’ understanding of innocence and experience. Similarly, Ofili’s sexually explicit and dynamic manipulation of the two figures, at times blending into one, prompts viewers to question their perceptions of push versus pull, active versus passive, sacred versus profane. Again the artist has Africanized the angel, a usually white icon.

Chris Ofili: Annunciation, 2006
Photo courtesy of David Zwirner

Throughout the exhibition, Ofili repeats, recombines, and reassesses his subjects and the interconnectedness of its underlying themes: birth, death, seduction, and salvation, both religious and personal. In Lazarus (dream), 2007, Ofili pairs the biblical character of Lazarus, the man whom Christ miraculously raised from the dead (prefiguring Jesus’ own resurrection) and who appears on five canvases, with an image of a dancing couple drawn from the iconic photograph, Christmas Eve, 1963, by Malian photographer Malick Sidibé. In another painting, Douen’s Dance, 2007, Ofili again riffs on the Sidibé image, which appears in three paintings on canvas and one collage on linen, this time combining it with aspects of Trinidadian folklore, establishing the heavy influence the artist’s current home has exerted on the development of this new body of work.

Similarly, in creating Confession (Lady Chancellor), 2007, Ofili found inspiration in art historical depictions of the "penitent whore" Mary Magdalene (with her red hair used to dry the feet of Christ), images of nudes from Playboy Magazine (the disembodied hand offering a drink), and Trinidad’s Lady Chancellor Hill (the outline is formed by the arch of the figure’s back), thus creating a complicated portrait of temptation, sin, and the admission of guilt.

Chris Ofili: Confession (red), 2006-2007
Oil and charcoal on canvas
80 x 50.5 cm; 31 1/2 x 19 7/8 inches
Photo courtesy of David Zwirner

Born in Manchester, England, Ofili was raised Roman Catholic by parents who emigrated from Nigeria. His daring aesthetic often consists of thematic combinations from art, craft, and African magic or witchcraft with references to pop culture and non-Western traditions such as ancestor worship.  The elephant dung, occasional porn clippings, or urban pop culture- inspired titles (The Adoration of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars , Seven Bitches Tossing Their Pussies Before the Divine Dung) can be interpreted as visual heresy worthy of Dada, and perhaps indicate the ambiguity of his position as a painter of both English and African descent.

Over the years, both formally and conceptually, Ofili has paid homage and forged dialogue with works by artists ranging from William Hogarth, Philip Guston, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, William Blake, Paul Gauguin, Bob Thompson to the Blue Rider group


Chris Ofili: Devil's Pie
Through 3 November 2007
David Zwirner
525 W. 19th Street.
New York, NY 10011-2808
Tel: (1) 212 727 20 70

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