Currently on at David Zwirner’s 34 East 69th Street townhouse in uptown New York City, artist Chris Ofili is presenting a series of new works unified under the title Dangerous Liaisons. Referencing René Magritte’s eponymous painting of 1935, which Ofili explores in drawings that employ the compositional organization of the Surrealist’s work as a structure for his own rich and layered exploration of color and line, the exhibition underscores Ofili’s abilities as an expressive and emotive painter whose craft with the brush is complemented by his rich conceptual practice.
The show depicts a range of watery scenes and mythological characters, sea nymphs and mermaids that twist and lounge across the surface of the work, while elsewhere, bodies lay supine, depicted in a manner that recalls the languages of Grecian antiquity. These varied explorations are striking investigations of the varied cultural frameworks Ofili has repeatedly mined throughout the course of his career, drawing on European cultural modes in exchange with the landscapes and imagery of his home in Trinidad, imbuing these images with the accents and impressions of the figure of Calypso, a striking linguistic and visual negotiation with the landscapes of the Caribbean, rendering his figures as a negotiation of both North American and European histories.
Homer’s Odyssey serves as a central theme of the show, with several drawings and paintings devoted to Odysseus. Inspired in part by the music of the island of Trinidad, where Ofili has lived since 2005, the artist has reimagined Calypso—traditionally represented as a deceptive femme fatale—as a striking mermaid, and he has visualized Odysseus as a beautiful, dark-skinned suitor. In this range of paintings, Ofili presents the characters with curving bodies, sumptuously spread out across the compositions and displayed in layered surfaces filled with arabesque vines and bubble-like forms. The figures and their surroundings are rendered in rich greens and purples, blacks and blues that give the works an almost explosive energy. In one group of drawings, Ofili depicts the two mythical figures lovingly intertwined, visually evoking the couple’s passion through compositions that mix strong graphic lines with lush, kaleidoscopic colors and gold leaf. Other drawings feature Calypso luxuriating in the depths of the sea, while related works depict nymphs, also rendered as mermaids, with luminous shimmering bodies, diving through dark waters pocketed with distinctive colors.
These recurring lines between cultures and concepts, twisting language and image through his complex visual workouts, Ofili’s work on view allows a deep dive into the shared spaces and histories of both sides of the Atlantic, and the historical iconographies that still mingle and meander through the watery depths.
The show closes July 19th.
— C. Rhinehart
Exhibition Site [David Zwirner]