Earlier this year, Chris Ofili contributed a suite of paintings to ‘Metamorphosis: Titian 2012’, an exhibition at London’s National Gallery for which he, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger made new works (and designed stage sets for three ballets) responding to a trio of Titian paintings, themselves inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I found myself returning repeatedly to see two or three of the Ofilis, electrifying concoctions whose painterly specifics – hormonal bodies enflamed by coloured light; compositional bouillabaisses of dewy abstraction, perky patterning and hieratic figuration; Gauguin-meets-Bonnard-meets-DayGlo palette – called out from memory while somehow resisting its grasp. These paintings were, it turned out, the result of Ofili spending two years marinating in Ovidian iconography. What he found in the ancient tales, it appears, was something archetypal and classical to react against and spin: a dynamic that, looking back over Ofili’s career, has always fired his best work.
The artist’s subsequent show at Victoria Miro, titled ‘to take and to give’, was cut from the same backcloth. It predominantly comprised ink sketches, pencil drawings, collages and watercolours, zooming in on details within Ovid and testing them for visual inspiration – taking, giving something back – though relating mostly to Ofili’s stage set for his chosen ballet, Diana & Actaeon. (Plot: hunter accidentally stumbles on goddess bathing nude; she, angered, turns him into a stag and his own hounds rip him apart.) Nothing in it matched the canvases at The National Gallery, despite the latter works being physically dwarfed by the five-by-nine-metre centrepiece that gave this exhibition its title, which could be a stage backdrop in itself. The show divided into subjects via clusters of framed works on paper – ‘hounds’, ‘hunters’, ‘nymphs’, etc. – with the Actaeon myth finding its liveliest expression in a series of 2011–12 ink drawings of fluent, dancer-like bodies whose flowing limbs culminated in photo-collages of hounds’ heads, a resonantly strange transformation if one assumes that the figures represent the vengeful Diana.
To take and to give (2012), by contrast, is somnolent, near-static. A figure (presumably the hunter) arrives at a billowing waterfall in front of which sits an iridescent tangle of nude bodies, his eyes closed as if sleepwalking or led by unconscious lust; the strange lack of violence, the dreamy inevitability – particularly compared to Titian’s hazy, nightmarish rendering – is the painting’s most striking aspect. If in The National Gallery Ofili made the Metamorphoses smoky, sexy, tropical and ritualistic, fostering that ambience turns out to have a lot to do with colour. Here those paintings’ heat only really returned in a number of chromatic watercolours, collectively entitled Study for Ovid-Windfall (2012), in which womanly bodies rise from translucent smoke pouring from something like a crucible.
But amid the fusillades of fast drawings elsewhere, one in any case thinks less about Ovid than about Ofili. The show felt, at least at first, rhetorical: a demonstration of robust fecundity that transvalues process and makes one wonder how extricable it is from its maker’s starry status. (This, after all, was the sort of in-depth display you would expect to see dedicated to a dead artist. For a living one, it said that his sketches are very worthy of merit, and though its placement upstairs at Miro militated this slightly, the accompanying doorstop of a hardback book – containing many more sketches – did not.) Career flummery aside, what we were made witness to was the artist mid-transformation. His 2010 retrospective at Tate Britain suggested in its closing stages that Ofili was increasingly shunning his safety zone, editing out the glitter and lacquer of his earlier paintings in favour of suave figural intersections learned from Modernist masters; this show, an exploded sketchbook disposed around a painting that, though big, is provisional, sustained the idea of flow and needful pursuance.
And, finally, it did something else. The works, with their speedy drafting, initially seem expressive enough that some sense of character might be expected to be trapped in them, but not much is. Rather we were reminded that Ofili doesn’t so much do life-infused figures as pointed mutations; he takes august visual repertoires, twists them, makes them lusty and lustrous, and possesses them – whether the subjects are sourced from religious iconography or superheroes or whatever. The recent paintings achieve this more subtly, but their musky or scintillating atmospherics disguise their connection with the long oppositional trajectory of Ofili’s art. As an exhibition, ‘to take and to give’ restored the link, though it shouldn’t be mistaken for a major body of work in its own right.