Chris Ofili is still fearless after all these years. His current stunning gallery-filling exhibition “Paradise Lost,” at David Zwirner through October 21, consists of just four paintings. The visual range here is narrow, austere, systemized. Each canvas is rendered in black-and-white patterns of little shapes, some of which convert into recognizable forms. Words appearing three times. Each of the paintings is slightly larger than life-sized, flat, not messy, loosely abstract, and look like a graphic combination of stained glass, dish towels, mystic dotted Australian dream paintings, and nonrepresentational movie posters. All four paintings are hung inside a large square of floor-to-ceiling cyclone-fencing cage — facing inward. Meaning viewers must take up positions on the either side of the gallery and look through the fence to see the work at all. There are only a few feet between the fence and walls. Yet the gestalt of “Paradise Lost” exudes a metaphysical geography of philosophy and otherness.
The walls are decorated with a race of giant, ghostly, semi-naked exotic gods gazing at us from behind another painted cyclone fence. They dance, commune with one another or look at us with tenderness, all enveloped in some earthly paradise. We feel an ethos of compassion in this limbo between the paintings and the walls. I felt taken out of myself and into some trans-historical cloister where invisible forces manifest themselves. For me “Paradise Lost” is Ofili creating his own conceptual, eroticized, blacker, and less glowingly Buddhist Rothko Chapel.
Many will not share my transport. It’s frustrating to not be able to get close to this work; more so because Ofili’s touch is so detailed and sensual. Painters particularly will be irked because they love standing close to and studying the minutia of paintings. There’s also the heavy-handed grand theatricality of it all, not to mention Ofili’s control-freak level of purposefulness.
I hope people table these reservations and enter Ofili’s atmospherics. That they’ll remember he always combines the profane — that is pop culture, black vixens, Funkadelic, blaxploitation and the like — with sacred, meaning religious and mythical figures, Satan, and beautiful would-be monkey gods holding chalices. You can see that blending perfectly as far back as Ofili’s Painting With Shit on It, from 1993, which includes the sacred-profane material of elephant dung collected in Zimbabwe on his first trip to Africa in 1992, when the artist was 22. It is incorporated into patterning indigenous Zimbabwe cave paintings. Ofili is not only a painter of modern life; he’s a Westerner who nevertheless successfully de-Westernizes painting itself. Maybe this is why some have found his work so transgressive.
“Paradise Lost” shows Ofili expanding a psychic space for painting to function in. I take the show’s title to grant wide birth to my imagination and fancy this exhibition a visionary compass. Each painting represents a cardinal point. On the northern fence, facing south, is V — a tapestry of intertwining geometric shapes with a large letter V extending top to bottom. First it’s some large symbol, sign, or letter. A modern hieroglyphic — cryptic but emphatic. Thoughts that this might be an allusion to the female are confirmed by the painting facing it on the opposite fence. Libido is nonrepresentational and geometric except for a hovering black penis and testicles. Jasper Johns used a similar structure in his 1980 Tantric Detail, only with skull and testicles. In the Ofili, an apparitional male figure forms — like some genie in rut. Already Ofili is sexualizing this serious-looking space, providing universal allusions to primal forces, an idyllic ode to love or cosmic river crossing.
The painting on the west fence facing east is Embah. The words Emheyo and Bahabba are spelled out on either side of the canvas. Emheyo Bahabba was Ofili’s late poet-painter Trinidad neighbor, the subject of a marvelous White Columns exhibition co-organized by Ofili and Peter Doig. Here Bahabba is a bearded columnar figure; from his torso juts an abstracted hand holding an amoeba-shaped painter’s palette. The painter’s other hand extends a large key into the checkerboard field. Whether it’s infinity, art, or just looking for passage, it’s an apt metaphor for creating systems to imagine worlds. These magical feelings are echoed in the painting directly across. Ellipsis pictures a Ghostbusters-like spirit with a face that counteracts, informs, and communicates with everything in this room — like some muse, spirit guide, or death.
The show’s one-paragraph press release includes the final lines of Paradise Lost, the ones that depict Adam and Eve taking their final leave of the earthly paradise: “The world was all before them … and Providence their guide: They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow, Through Eden took their solitary way.” Notice that Milton’s is not some mad admonitory expulsion, neither violent, nor filled with dread and darkness. Similarly, Ofili’s “Paradise Lost” has intimations of mindfulness, Eros, loss, the gestalt of our first parents somehow already saved by using their free will to accept the consequences of their actions, assuming individual agency, not crying, prepared to plumb the mysteries of existence even with the awful foreknowledge of death, venturing resolutely upon a new vision of reality.
This made me plumb what I thought of as the moral dimension of Ofili’s “Paradise Lost.” I was startled to end up in a strange personal place. I was raised in a family of all men, of a father and five brothers — no mother, aunts, grandmothers, or sisters; women weren’t just distant mysteries to me, they were magical elevated beings that contained multitudes. When I was very young I hated men and — with only a few years of Hebrew schooling before being expelled — surmised that women were more evolved because they ate more of the Tree of Knowledge. Indeed, Eve eats a first apple at the tree, alone with the snake. To me she was the hero of the story; the one who shared the magnificent gift of self-knowledge with Adam, and bore the brunt of the responsibility for the act. Unbidden, she bestows this gift on Adam and shares a second apple with him. He eats half; she the other half. Thus Eve ate three-quarters and Adam only one-quarter, I concluded. Somehow Ofili touched on this primitive place for me. His “Paradise Lost” is not hellfire, pain, and damnation; it is the beneficence and the acceptance of responsibility of what Jonathan Lear recently deemed “radical hope.”