Chris Ofili, The Adoration of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars (Third Version), 1998, oil, acrylic, polyester resin, paper collage, glitter, map pins, and elephant dung on linen, 96 by 72 inches. Courtesy the artist, David Zwirner, New York/London, and Victoria Miro, London. © Chris Ofili.

 

 

On the occasion of Chris Ofili's new show at New York's New Museum, A.i.A. delved into the archives. The controversial 1999 exhibition "Sensation," at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, included Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary, which was the target of protest and vandalism. The work prompted art historian and critic Linda Nochlin, writing in our December 199 issue, to ask, "who says that religious art shouldn't be a bit shocking?"

Despite the continuing controversy over the "Sensation" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, most of the arguments have centered, quite properly, on the issue of First Amendment rights rather than on the quality of the show itself. First things first—the arrogance of a mayor who feels he can single-handedly dictate what art is to be shown in our museums needs to be addressed. But aside from Metropolitan Museum of Art director Philippe de Montebello, who disdainfully dismissed the whole show in a New York Times op-ed piece, comparing the artistic elevation of Lorenzo Lotto's peeing putto to the debasement of the human body in a nude by Kiki Smith (an artist of great achievement who is neither in "Sensation" nor British, hence irrelevant to de Montebello's argument), no one but Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker and Jerry Saltz in the Village Voice seem to have taken on the actual work on view in Brooklyn.

Yes, some of the work in "Sensation" is shocking—sensational, in fact, both in form and in content. But it is hardly more shocking—and, in my opinion, considerably more original—than many of the titillating nudes by Balthus or Lucian Freud, both of whom have been certified as Important by major retrospectives at de Montebello's own museum. And, after all, is it really so terrible to shock on the taxpayer's money when the shock resides solely in the realm of representation? No one is being beaten up at the Brooklyn Museum, non one is forced at gunpoint to deny his or her religious beliefs. In fact, no one is being forced to see the show at all.

Despite the charges of elitism leveled at "Sensation" by William Safire, it seems to me that the work in question is readily available in most cases, even in-your-face in others. And there are some wonderful pieces to contemplate, and a rich variety of styles and moods and viewpoints on display. Take, for example, Richard Billingham's group of color photos of his family. Large-scale images mounted on aluminum, they give a new meaning to family values. In one, the photographer's parents eat a sloppy meal before the television (Mom is wearing ear muffs, weighs more than she should and is prominently tattooed); the family pets are much in evidence. In another, a cat flies through the air as Dad lists to the right against a background of intriguing complexity; in still another, the portly but sexy Mom reclines on a couch in a flowery shift, her hands behind her head, an odalisque of the housing estate. Beautiful and ugly at once, richly decorative in their documentary accuracy, Billingham's images call into question the very notion of beauty and certainly that of the ideal family. The work of Walker Evans, Diane Arbus and, more recently, Nan Goldin may have provided inspiration, but the vision of intimate life is entirely his own. And speaking of the family, what could be more shocking—and more accurate—than Ron Mueck's supernaturalistic child-sized effigy of his father, Dead Dad? Stark naked, unbearably accurate, this silicone-and-acrylic sculpture cruelly objectifies the change in psychic scale brought about by the loss of a parent, when the child indeed becomes father to the man.

The body is on view in a wide variety of startling forms throughout "Sensation." Most prominent are the huge, virtuoso surfaces of Jenny Saville's female nudes, which occupy almost the whole of the oversize canvases she works on. From one point of view, you might see them as homages to Lucian Freud, but from another you might think them hostile parodies. With exquisite delicacy, Saville mockingly probes the texture of female flesh, leaving not one acre unplowed by her shameless brush. In one case, the vastly foreshortened nude is overlaid by a kind of contour map, as though the image of landscape and that of a woman's body had converged in the mind of the painter. This is an old trope, incidentally. The Surrealist André Masson created a landscape version of Courbet's Origin of the World to use as an innocent cover-up for that erotic painting when it came into the possession of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in the 1940s. It might be worth recalling that Courbet's shocking Origin had its first public showing at the Brooklyn Museum in the "Courbet Reconsidered" exhibition of 1986-without any protest from City Hall, or anywhere else, as I remember. The painting now hangs in the Musée d'Orsay.

Saville's virtuoso canvases remind us just how prominent painting is in the "Sensation" show. Saville, Fiona Rae, Richard Patterson, Gary Hume, Marcus Harvey and the notorious Chris Ofili are all painters, deploying a wide range of styles and techniques. At a time when installation and video occupy pride of place in the contemporary field, it is interesting to see how new oil or acrylic on canvas can be. At the same time, it would be a real mistake to equate the use of oil on canvas with a return to tradition. On the contrary, it is as though these young painters resort to oil paint precisely to dis the lofty pretensions of painting in the past. Many of the canvases are, at once, references to and wildly excessive parodies of even the most "extreme" and "sensational" work of the past. Take Marcus Harvey's Julie from Hull, for instance, which overlays bold de Kooning-style, Ab-Ex facture on a female nude outlined in graphic black. Probably derived from a porno magazine, this figure has contours identical to those of Courbet's lower belly study. Martin Maloney's deliberately primitivizing Rave specifies that it is after Poussin's Triumph of Pan, just as his Hey Good Looking is after the latter's Choice of Hercules. Both are really cartoons writ large in streaky bright color, bad taste "redeemed" by classical reference.

Not all the shock of "Sensation" has to do with sex. The partially dismembered naked bodies in the Chapman brothers' Great Deeds Against the Dead are directly inspired by Goya's etchings from the "Disasters of the War" Series. Goya himself titled one image from this horrifying graphic cycle "One cannot bear to see such things." The Chapmans are saying, in effect: "We'll make you see such things, we will restore the horror of war to three-dimensional accuracy, keeping the hellish beauty of the bodies in Goya's composition," making reference, perhaps, in this return to unbearable naturalism, to what has been happening in Bosnia. The Chapmans' Goyaesque sculpture is only one of many works in the show which achieve their effects by pushing the "lessons of the masters" to what one might think of as their logical conclusions. (Most of the "masters" in question are 20th century: Matisse, Rauschenberg, Chuck Close, Jeff Koons.)

Yet there are also works of great fastidiousness and subtlety in "Sensation." Rachel Whiteread is an artist of acute intelligence and sensibility, transforming empty space into object, destruction into memorial. Whiteread's Untitled (One-Hundred Spaces), an installation of translucent resin casts of the spaces beneath chairs and stools, glitters with a faint, understated bravado, as though negative space were declaring itself as something worthwhile after all. Her bathtubs, cast from the real thing, have the tranquil finality of tombs.

And yes, I think Damien Hirst is "sensational," but in the positive sense of the word. While they might create less of a stir in a natural-history museum, the shark in its glass enclosure and the cow piece in 12 vertical vitrines are shocking in the gallery context. They are also shockingly beautiful. The shark, especially, in its pseudo-watery setting, constantly metamorphoses from flat to three-dimensional, affording a variety of novel viewpoints as the spectator moves around the case. And then there are the careful arrangements of prescription drugs and small fish, arrangements that remind us of the taxonomies, sometimes solemn, sometimes zany, of the natural history museum and the Renaissance tradition of the wunderkammer from which Hirst's work derives and which it traduces at the same time.

Finally, there is Ofili, an artist of considerable talent and sophistication. Of course, he knows exactly what he is doing: he is being a smart, young, knowledgeable British artist at the same time that he is thrusting the cultural values of his own particular ethnic background in the face of the public. The result is winning rather than off-putting, and he is certainly an equal-opportunity elephant-dung employer, using the stuff to make little supports for his big bright images; to stand for flying objects in space in the aptly named Spaceshit of 1995; to fashion celebrity mementos, labeled "Miles Davis" and "Cassius Clay," and so on, in Afrodizzia of 1996; and for the right breast of the much-maligned The Holy Virgin Mary of 1996. The gold background is positively Byzantine here, inflected by little backsides and female genitalia which play a role rather like that of the ex-votos left on Catholic altarpieces by grateful believers since time immemorial. The elephant dung is simply part of the effect, which owes its elegant exuberance to a combination of paper collage, oil paint (often applied in a Neo-Impressionist dotlike allover pattern), glitter, polyester resin and map pins. And who says that religious art shouldn't be a bit shocking? Why should it not, indeed, shock us out of our spiritual complacency, rather than lull us into it? Think of Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Theresa, often shocking to today's viewers, or Caravaggio's Virgin of Loreto, depicting worshiping peasants with bare, dirty feet, which certainly shocked its contemporaries. As Norman Rosenthal points out in his exhilarating introduction to the catalogue, "the chief task of new art is to disturb that sense of comfort."

Then again, "Sensation" must be understood as a peculiarly self-conscious British exhibition. Rosenthal asks the crucial question, "Can London become the unchallenged centre for the practice and presentation of contemporary art?" Among other things, this is serious and provocative artistic nationalism, intensified by the love/hate relationship young British artists clearly have with their national identity. For the "Sensation" artists, no cows are sacred, not even those of their radical elders.