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Issue 238

Chris Ofili’s Seven Deadly Sins

An exhibition of kaleidoscopic painting at Victoria Miro, London, is a celebration of free love and excess

BY Chloë Ashby in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 12 JUN 23

Never before have I seen such a sassy satyr. Or is he a minotaur? The devil? A man? The fantastical beast reclines in the undergrowth, propped up on one elbow, in a pose that’s vaguely reminiscent of the French girls painted by Édouard Manet in 19th-century Paris. A high heel-like hoof and matching horns dazzle in fluorescent pink, yellow and blue. A long, slender tail snakes up and around, its feathered tip flickering in the celestial light. He brings a flower stem to his lips, its leaves rubbing up against a vulva-shaped bloom. Only then do I notice the woman swinging on a golden vine tossing her head back with orgasmic abandon.

Chris Ofili, The Swing, 2020-2023.
Chris Ofili, The Swing, 2020–2023, oil and charcoal on linen, 3.1 × 2 m. Courtesy: © Chris Ofili and Victoria Miro, London

The Swing (2020–23) is one of seven vast and dreamlike canvases in Chris Ofili’s ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’. Painted over the past six years in Barbados and Trinidad, each work conjures not a single sin but a cosmic realm of overabundance and transgression. Amid the mythical creatures and lush foliage are glimpses of greed, gluttony, envy, wrath, lust, pride and sloth, though the exact meaning of the images is tantalizingly out of reach. As with all things Ofili, this shimmering Eden is as mystifying as it is hypnotic.

The fallen appear among thinly painted layers of pigment and a constellation of pointillist dots that resemble pollen, dust motes, even blood cells. In The Pink Waterfall (2019–23), one woman is literally falling in a cascade of rosy spray, legs akimbo, back arched. In The Fountain (2017–23), a stream of naked sprites, which call to mind the beautiful and the damned of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings, spill up and over the lip of a boiling pot. The Fall from Grace (2019–23) features something or someone tumbling towards the Earth within the kaleidoscopic rays of a golden-orb sun. Watching it all unfold are floating heads slurping bright and colourful flora.

Installation view of Chris Ofili's paintings.
Chris Ofili, ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: © Chris Ofili and Victoria Miro, London

As I pass from painting to painting, I find myself moving closer to lap up the rich and glittering paint surface, then backing away as the full scene unfolds. I crane my neck to catch a glimpse of a heavily lashed eye, pink-painted toenails, a trailing vine. These canvases slip and shift between representation and abstraction, and reward slow looking. It’s only on second inspection that I notice the shining silhouette of a couple embracing at the heart of The Great Beauty (2020–23), so preoccupied was I with its bird and plant life.

The seven canvases at Victoria Miro are displayed across two floors, each with a wall to itself. Hanging upstairs between big windows, and with a small circular window above, The Fall from Grace resembles an altarpiece. The artist was raised as a Roman Catholic and has always been interested in religion, which he mixes in his work with mythology, contemporary pop culture and art-historical references. Most famously and controversially, he gave us The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), a portrait of a Black Virgin with pages from pornographic magazines collaged around her and elephant dung for a breast. Also, The Upper Room (1999–2002), inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1495–98), with monkeys – synonymous with base instincts – instead of apostles.

Chris Ofili, The Fountain, 2017-2023.
Chris Ofili, The Fountain, 2017–2023, oil and charcoal on linen, 3.1 × 2 m. Courtesy: © Chris Ofili and Victoria Miro, London

Amid the carnal tangle of limbs in ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’, I sense, every now and then, where these beguiling works have come from and where they’re heading. There are nods to William Blake and Sigmar Polke as well as to Ofili’s own practice, which has always fused the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the physical. As for the meaning, it could be a lesson in the consequences of cardinal sins. Or – and I like this reading better – it’s a celebration of free love and excess, fizzing, teeming.

Chris Ofili's ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’ is on view at Victoria Miro, London until 29 July

Main image: Chris Ofili, The Great Beauty, 2020–2023, oil and charcoal on linen, 3.1 × 2 m. Courtesy: © Chris Ofili and Victoria Miro, London

Chloë Ashby is an author and arts critic who has written for publications such as The Times, TLS, Guardian, Spectator and frieze. Her debut novel, Wet Paint, was published in April 2022, and her second novel, Second Self, is due in July 2023.