Looking at Last Night, New Day by Chris Ofili, I cannot help but recall art historian Clement Greenberg’s now-infamous emphasis on the “flatness” of the modern picture plane. “Flatness” for Greenberg was essential to the painted and graphic arts and was to be celebrated; it was a quality that no other artistic expression – poetry, dance, drama, sculpture, sound – could boast. And for all of the corrugated, organic, and geometric lines or forms that mediate and blur the distinction between positive and negative space in Last Night, New Day, its shape and space are decidedly flat.
And yet, as my eye travels across the work, I see a sensuous ribbon of blue. I notice the triangulated shimmering form at center that seems akin to the sacred geometry of mothers in Buddhism and Christianity. I recall a visit to the Tate Britain in 2010 where I saw Ofili’s first retrospective and stood before works perhaps more familiar to many of us—the massive paintings where religion, sexual taboo, and the collaged-embellishments of sequins, magazine cut-outs, and petrified balls of elephant dung force a mélange of the elemental and the reverent. In looking at the work, “flatness” becomes ironically circuitous and boundary-breaking. It is as if “flat” can be a metaphor that breaks down the hierarchy of artistic subjects and places history, religion, and experiment on a level field of artistic play. In Last Night, New Day, my sense of art historical criticism jumps forward and backward in time. It is if Ofili is calling the viewer to link the modern with the postmodern and the contemporary with the historical.
Links across time and place prove endemic to the medium of printmaking. The use of tools to etch into a surface (often metal-plates, stone, or wood-block) that can then be coated with oils, acids, pigments, and water and, by applied pressure, print a reversed image of the etched relief onto skin or paper dates to the Han dynasty of China (206 BCE – 220 CE), if not the lithography techniques of the ancient Greeks. For Chris Ofili (born in England, living and working in Trinidad, born 1968) to turn to printmaking at the height of his international painting and installation success, suggests a desire to re-think what it means to be an artist in a technological age; a desire to re-engage with the concept of the “artist’s hand” by reconnecting with his intuition. As Ofili remarked in 2008, “In the process of making art, the mind wanders and gives way to instinct, which feeds off areas the intellect doesn’t. The process is one of distillation to the point where it’s just essence, just itself.”
Born in England to Nigerian-born parents, Ofili studied at the Chelsea School of Art in London and received a Masters in Painting at the Royal College of Art. His first solo show was in 1991 at the Kepler Gallery in London. Ofili became an international personage in 1997 when he was included in the exhibition, Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection. The exhibition traveled to the Brooklyn Museum in 1999 where Ofili’s painting, The Holy Virgin Mary, was the object of criticism by then-mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, and members of The Catholic League. Ofili was awarded the Turner Prize for painting in 1998. In 2005, he relocated to Trinidad. In 2008, Ofili partnered with master printers at Crown Point Press in San Francisco to make a series fine art prints. The title, Last Night, New Day invokes this sense of bringing the best of past lessons into a renewed studio practice. The layering of multiple printing techniques on the same surface speaks to the way contemporary artists are using technological innovation as a way of engaging with older forms of artistic praxis—especially working in cooperatives and experimenting with lithography and aquatint.
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