This weekend we're checking out Chris Ofili: Night and Day at the New Museum. And while we're down on the Bowery, we'll head over to Fiat Cafe on Mott Street, a hidden gem with a relaxed atmosphere and a classic local Italian feel. Update: "Night and Day" closed on February 1st. To stay updated on what's going on right now, sign up for our #YourArtWeekend newsletter here.
THE ART /
"Night and Day," the New Museum's excellent Chris Ofili retrospective, spans the British painter's entire career, covers three floors, and includes several distinct groups of paintings. There are many Americans who remember Ofili only because of the controversy that followed his rise to fame as a young artist. (The last time "The Holy Virgin Mary," one of the works in this exhibition, was shown in New York, Mayor Giuliani tried to cut the city's funding for the Brooklyn Museum.) But there is much more to see here than just the controversy. Ofili is a talented painter with a unique style that engages art history and contemporary culture without losing focus on the immense aesthetic power of his work.
The first floor of the show is devoted to the huge, sensual pieces that made Ofili a household name in the 1990s. Like a hip-hop producer who builds a song by sampling sounds from disparate sources, Ofili combines high and low subjects and material in these works. Biblical figures, Old Masters poses, Notorious B.I.G. lyrics, elephant dung, blaxploitation superheroes, and elaborate Klimt-like patterns of colorful paint all come together in these distinctive pieces, which are way too beautiful to be dismissed because of their supposed vulgarity. Around the corner from these large works are a series of dozens of small portraits -- "Afromuses" -- that stick to a basic plan and spread out across the long wall like an illustrated family tree of an aristocratic dynasty.
Ofili turns away from bright colors and glitter with the second floor's "Blue Rider" paintings. These works are impossible to capture in a photograph, and are presented on their own in a gallery with almost no lighting. They adhere to a strict black-and-blue palette and are as melancholic as his earlier paintings are exuberant. The figures in the pieces are barely distinguishable from their surroundings at first, and the paintings are disorienting and somewhat magical in the way some nightmares seem to be. Look at "Iscariot Blues" for a minute or so and you'll make out a man hanging from a noose on the right side of the canvas. It is in this room where the show earns the "Night" half of its title.
On the third floor, you'll find Ofili's most recent work -- large, gorgeous paintings he has made since he moved from London to Trinidad. The best of the new pieces, like "Lime Bar" and "Ovid-Actaeon," contain the bold colors and the nods to art history of his earliest work (one Titian-inspired series is based on stories from Ovid's Metamorphosis), but also invoke the more restrained, thoughtful quality of the "Blue Rider" era. Like the work of Matisse and Gauguin (who also made a mid-career move from Europe to live on a tiny tropical island), these paintings combines figurative, decorative and abstract styles, often within a single canvas. The exhibition is huge, but the chronological setup, which finishes at a peak (so far) for the 46-year-old, works so well that you'll leave wanting even more.
WHAT TO DO AFTER /
Around the corner, on Mott Street, Fiat Cafe is a hidden gem with a friendly, local vibe and classic Italian fare. It's always worth stopping in for a quick bite or coffee, and staying for a full meal is a perfect move after a show at the New Museum.