BY Tom Morton in Reviews | 10 OCT 02
Featured in
Issue 70

Chris Ofili

Victoria Miro Gallery, London, UK

BY Tom Morton in Reviews | 10 OCT 02

Chris Ofili's paintings are heady, alluring things, so maybe it's appropriate that Afromantics (2000-2), exhibited on the ground floor of 'Freedom One Day' - Ofili's first show in London for four years - depicts the beginning of a seduction. One of four related Arcadian canvases, the work shows a beau taking his belle by the hand, fecund foliage framing their blunt features. A vast beard telescoping proudly from his chin, the guy sports an Afro and a sharp suit. Posing like a figure in an Egyptian tomb painting, he seems unaware that his left shoulder is sprouting an extra arm. Lolling at his side, the auxiliary limb ends in a clenched fist - a flaccid black power salute or a cramped hand smuggled out of Francis Picabia's orgiastic Udnie (1913). The woman is a stately Caribbean queen, her bouffant pierced by a spiky ray of sunlight flashing from a ball of Ofili's trademark elephant dung. Speckled with colourful map pins, the orb hangs in the heavens like the all-seeing eye of some pagan god of disco.

Based on figures from a Trinidadian dry-cleaning advertisement, the couple also feature in Afronirvana (2002). A tropical restaging of Edouard Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe (1863), the painting depicts the lovers lounging naked in a prelapsarian grove, post-coital smiles playing across their faces. Triple Beam Dreamer (2001-2) samples another work by Manet, Olympia (1863), transplanting its central motif to a jungle clearing where ganja leaves sprout and particles of glitter hang in the air like a cloud of benign mosquitoes. Looking at Ofili's work, it's as if the black maid that hovers in the background of Manet's painting has jacked in her day job, escaping to a garden paradise where - her lips wrapped round a banana, her breasts spurting elegant arcs of milk - she parodies the pose of her flint-eyed courtesan mistress. Afro Love & Unity (2002) completes the cycle. Here the couple embrace beneath floppy palm fronds, the guy's hand resting on the woman's pregnant belly, his great baguette of a beard shrunken to a demi-pain, his third arm nowhere in sight.

There's a lot happening in these paintings: tourist clichés and abandoned civilizations, the afrocentrism of Stevie Wonder's album Talking Book (1972) and the libidinous soul of Barry White. Ofili has swiped his colour scheme from Marcus Garvey's design for a pan-African flag - green for the lost kingdom, black for the fallen, red for the blood that was shed. These canvases are a rich blend of historical fantasies and contemporary takes on the good life - things that might just help the flowers of liberty grow. Manet seems like an odd painter to throw into the mix, until we remember his bourgeois materialism and his starring role in Modernism's creation myth. With smart clothes and a kid on the way, Ofili's Adam and Eve are an average middle-class couple. Maybe they represent most people's idea of freedom: nice threads, someone to love, a sense of identity, a garden and the occasional bout of Discovery Channel sex. It's a humble blueprint for paradise on earth, but a pretty seductive one too.

If Ofili's tricolour paintings are concerned with worldly things, the paintings in the upper gallery explore something more obviously spiritual. Housed in a darkened walnut room designed by David Adjaye, two groups of six canvases hung along the side-walls and a single larger work dominated the far end. Propped on elephant shit supports, the smaller works all feature a monkey dressed in a waistcoat and onion-shaped hat, a chalice clasped in its hairy paw. Based on an Andy Warhol drawing, each monkey was painted a different colour, its chromatic intensity increased by Adjaye's spotlights and the whorls of resin-trapped glitter that flurry across its pelt. The monkey's heads were turned towards the huge Mono Oro (Gold Monkey, 1999-2002), a portly hanuman with pigeon toes and a dung-ball halo hovering over his head. Part Christ, part chimp, his beatific smile seemed to bless the whole room.

It's easy to read these paintings as a simian Last Supper, a post-Darwinian tilt at the windmill of religion. If we wanted, we could think about it in terms of art history's other primates: Pablo Picasso's horny monkeys, say, or Edwin Landseer's gentleman apes. Then there's that lazy truism about galleries being contemporary places of worship - and what's Adjaye's room if not a temple? But with their gobsmacking beauty and dizzying detail Ofili's works can afford to be casual about such blunt interpretations. If his monkeys are about anything, they're about a faith in painting: a messy, earthbound business that - if we're lucky - occasionally brushes up against something heavenly.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.