Sunday, October 5, 2014

Ofili, Guiliani, and Elephant Dung

"Mouini Thi," 1995-96, oil paint, polyester resin, map pins, elephant dung on linen, 6' x 4'

This week's New Yorker has an article by the always-readable Calvin Tompkins updating us on the life and progress of Chris Ofili, the London (and now Trinidad-based) artist most famous for being at the center of the 1999 Brooklyn Museum showing of works from the Saatchi Collection that so offended then-mayor Rudy Giuliani that he tried to cut off city funding for the show. A couple thoughts about that flap.

1. As you will recall, Ofili's contribution to the controversy was a painting of the Virgin Mary in which a clump of elephant dung coated in resin was incorporated into the work as one of the subject's breasts. This set off the Catholic Giuliani's blasphemy sensors big time. But in a way, the dung is a positive symbol, connecting the regenerative powers of waste and detritus with the miracle birth. The more shocking aspect of the piece is actually the collage of cutout porn images floating around Mary like so many fallen angels. Shocking, yes, but also apt, as it points to the shame that has resulted from the severing of body and spirit in Western religion. Oh, and to up the outrage factor, this Blessed Mother is black, adding another hint of reclamation to the piece. Despite all this, I don't think the work is gratuitous. As idea art goes, it's pretty swell, if a tad overloaded. I maintain some decorum here at Art & Argument, so I invite you to view the work at the Saatchi site. Some of the other paintings in the dung series are actually pleasing to the eye (see above). Note how the paintings rest on clumps of dung, again suggesting the power of compost.

2. Rudy Giuliani of course is merely an opportunistic populist. Apparently it didn't offend his Catholic morals to move in with a gay friend and his life partner when his marriage was on the rocks. His shameful playing of the war-mongering 9-11 card during his run for the Republican nomination was just one more example of his tone deaf posturing. But, still, I've got to give the guy credit. He can be quite funny in a New York kind of way. At the time of the Brooklyn Museum dust up he said (referencing perhaps the sliced-in-half pig floating in formaldehyde), "If I can do it, it's not art." I've quoted that one for years. Marcel Duchamp might even agree.

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