Three floors, five galleries and one infamous painting at Chris Ofili’s Aspen Art Museum survey |

Three floors, five galleries and one infamous painting at Chris Ofili’s Aspen Art Museum survey

"The Holy Virgin Mary" by Chris Ofili at the Aspen Art Museum.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

If You Go …

What: ‘Chris Ofili: Night and Day’

Where: Aspen Art Museum

When: Through Nov. 1

How much: Free

More info:

A portrait of the Virgin Mary that in 1999 drew the ire of New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, spawning heated protests and a court battle, is now on view at the Aspen Art Museum.

The painting, “The Holy Virgin Mary,” by British artist Chris Ofili, portrays a black Madonna with an exposed breast, as in many of iconic religious portraits. Only here, the breast is a ball of elephant dung. She is surrounded by a collage of anatomical parts from pornographic magazines. The canvas is supported by two additional dung clumps.

The painting is in Aspen with a massive midcareer survey of Ofili’s acclaimed work from the early 1990s to today, originally organized at the New Museum in New York last year.

When it was shown at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, then-mayor Giuliani called the painting “sick stuff” and “anti-Catholic.” The mayor sought to evict the Brooklyn Museum from its city-owned building and revoke its public funding over the painting, which was part of its provocative “Sensation” exhibition of works by the Young British Artists. This set off a legal battle in federal court that pitted the mayor against the museum, which claimed Giuliani was violating its First Amendment rights. An out-of-court settlement eventually kept the museum’s funding and programmatic freedom in tact.

“There were nuns and priests praying outside of the museum, there were people throwing dung at effigies of Giuliani,” Massimiliano Gioni, artistic director at the New Museum, recalled on a walkthrough of the Aspen Art Museum show last week.

As the political furor heightened, the museum protected the work behind a Plexiglas shield, fearing it would be vandalized. A protester managed to elude security and smear it with white paint anyway in December 1999. A Brooklyn Museum conservator saved it by hosing it down with water.

The painting has continued to be shown around the world in the 16 years since, and it returned to New York — without controversy — last fall when the New Museum organized the Ofili survey now filling the Aspen museum. In June, “The Holy Virgin Mary” sold for $4.5 million at a Christie’s auction in London.

The nature of the painting was misrepresented by Giuliani and the press, Gioni noted, when they described it as a Madonna with feces “smeared” on or “thrown at” her.

Aspen Art Museum Director Heidi Zuckerman compared the public controversy over Ofili’s painting to the uproar last year over Cai Guo-Qiang’s “Moving Ghost Town” installation, which exhibited live tortoises with iPads affixed to their shells. Instead of Catholics and religious groups, that piece drew fire from the national and Aspen-based animal-rights communities. Similar to the Giuliani-led campaign against Ofili, Zuckerman noted, the outcry over the treatment of the turtles was fueled by an online petitioner and local reporters who had not visited the museum to see the work.

“The upside of a story like this is that art is powerful, art is threatening to people, art is scary to people,” Zuckerman said. “And what we’re trying to do by showing a work like this, and Cai Guo-Qiang, and all of our program, frankly, is not just in the power of people to have an opinion but to allow different voices to be heard, whether they’re controversial or gentle or acceptable to certain people or not. So this show, I think, is part of that tradition that we stand for and the New Museum stands for and the Brooklyn Museum stands for, which is about the celebration of individual artistic expression.”

In the Aspen exhibition, “The Holy Virgin Mary” is situated beside a painting of an anthropomorphized penis with a smiling clown face on its head. The placement, Zuckerman said, is in keeping with Ofili’s original intent for the works, though no museum has previously gone through with juxtaposing them.

“He said, ‘We couldn’t do that in New York, we couldn’t do it in London,’” Zuckerman recalled. “I said, ‘In Aspen, we’re going to put these two paintings next to each other and let people come up with their own interpretation.’ They’re all here anyway. Let’s put them together — that’s how they were hung originally.”

The Madonna portrait is shown in the museum’s main ground-floor gallery among Ofili’s exuberant works from the 1990s. They combine paint, glitter, collage and elephant dung collected from Africa. Ofili has said he was responding to hip-hop music — its sonic collages and samples, its explorations of black identity — when he made these paintings. This is the body of work that led to Ofili winning the Turner Prize in 1998.

The inclusion of the notorious Madonna ought not overshadow this monumental survey of Ofili’s groundbreaking career. Ofili created four new paintings for the Aspen show, which fills five galleries on three museum floors with a mesmerizing array of painting (and sculpture, drawing and collage) from six distinct bodies of work by the 46-year-old who now lives in Trinidad.

Two of the galleries have been aesthetically transformed for the show. A large basement space has been converted into a chapel-like room, with low light, rugs and benches that invite long contemplation of Ofili’s stirring paintings in “The Blue Rider Series” from the past decade. The deep blue and black paintings appear abstract at first glance. But spend a little time with them, allow your eyes to adjust, and discomfiting figurative images emerge. Ofili has painted the walls of the second-floor museum gallery — the largest in the facility — with flora and fauna in lush purple. Those walls hold his most recent, vibrant work on massive canvases (some of which still looked wet and smelled of fresh paint at Thursday’s walkthrough), which respond to classical artists such as Titian and Rodin much like his ’90s work riffs on superheroes, blaxploitation films and popular culture. Smaller galleries host his graphite drawings, his works using the red, black and green of the Pan-African flag, and his “Afromuses” watercolors.

“Chris Ofili: Night and Day” will be on view at the Aspen Art Museum through Nov. 1.

Pick up Saturday’s Aspen Times for more on “Chris Ofili: Night and Day.”

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