signed, titled and dated 1998 on the overlap; signed, titled and dated 1998 on the stretcher
London, Tate Gallery, Turner Prize, 1998-99
"My work and the way that I work comes out of experimentation, but it also comes out of a love of painting, a love affair with painting." The artist cited by Dan Glaister, '1998 Turner Prize goes to Ofili' in The Guardian, 2 Dec 1998
Through the Grapevine belongs to the select group of paintings for which Chris Ofili was awarded the Turner Prize in 1998. Exhibited at Tate alongside other contemporaneous masterpieces including The Adoration of Captain Shit and the Legend of Black Stars (Part 2) and No Woman No Cry (now in the collection of Tate, London), it is one of Ofili's breakthrough paintings which announced his arrival on the international stage. The 1998 Turner prize was significant for a number of reasons, not least because Ofili was the first painter to receive the coveted prize since Howard Hodgkin in 1985. In the intervening thirteen years, sculpture and conceptual, processed based art had reigned over the British art scene, with the likes of Anish Kapoor, Antony Gormley and Damien Hirst and new media artists Douglas Gordon and Gillian Wearing scooping up the prize in favour of key painters like Lucian Freud (shortlisted in 1988 and 1989) and Peter Doig (shortlisted in 1994). Praised by the jury for "the originality and energy of his painting" and its "multilayered references to contemporary urban culture and the history of art", Ofili's delicately layered painterly surfaces therefore also announced another significant arrival, or rather revival: the return of painting after over a decade on the sidelines of British art.
Not since Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of Ofili's most important influences, has a painter projected such a freestyle, stream-of-consciousness, layering of images onto the canvas to such potent effect. Studiously constructed, the surface of Through the Grapevine ripples with pools of vibrant fuchsia resin and dots of paint, painstakingly applied over a period of months. Attracted to this glistening surface, when we look closely we find collaged magazine cut-outs of the faces of Black music stars and cultural icons, concealed among the fecund fronds of the grapevine which gives the work its title. The intricacy of his technique is palpable in the serpentine lines and swirling arabesques created from tiny beads of pink and white pigment and glitter, applied in layer upon layer of translucent resin. Around all four edges, the resin bleeds away creating its own gravity-defying pattern as Ofili rotates the canvas, each successive layer revealing the layer below to create an incredibly rich and complex surface. As Ofili explains, "I tried to think of a way of working where all of those layers could coexist without cancelling each other out. They'd just be traces of experience in a way. All of what comes before is just as important as the statement on top." (the artist in conversation with Thelma Golden cited in 'A Door to Freedom' in The Observer, 20 September 2009). Slipping freely between the absorption of West African textiles, the dot-patterned surfaces of ancient Matopos cave paintings, Aboriginal paintings and the popular science fiction depictions of Chaos and the Void, Ofili's audacious and entirely unique surfaces are a majestic synthesis of cultures and painterly styles which bombard the visual senses.
The 'grapevine' of the title, references the 'grapevine telegraph', a term coined after the invention of the telegraph in the Nineteenth Century to refer to the word-of-mouth means of communication across America by the rural poor – largely African American communities – working among the grapevines. It also references the title of the Motown classic first sung by Gladys Knight and the Pips and later Marvin Gaye, Heard it Through the Grapevine. Music and its roots in popular culture are a vital influence on Ofili's painting, he says "I'm trying to make paintings that make you hear them, rather than see them. So actually, you're looking at music. So it will teach your eyes to hear, and your ears to see." (interview with the artist and Paul Miller, 'Deep Shit', Parkett, no. 58, 2000, pp. 171-176 ). In particular, funk, soul, jazz and hip-hop, genres associated with urban Black culture, find their visual counterparts in the cacophony of styles and humming energy of his paintings. In the lower left centre, the face of the hip-hop artist Lauryn Hill, who released her Grammy Award winning solo album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill that year, looks out at us from the layers of resin. Like a musician, Ofili uses paint as if it were sound, sampling, scratching and looping different rhythms and styles together. "I like the cut-and-paste attitude of hip-hop. You can often hear where one join ends and another begins, which is something I try to make apparent in my work, so you can see how things are made" (The artist cited in: Uta Grosenick, Ed., Art Now Vol. 2, Cologne 2005, p. 358).
Suggestive rather than dogmatic in its delivery, Ofili's work centrally situates Black culture while avoiding making a direct statement of uncompromising intent. Of Nigerian descent, Ofili is English, born in Manchester, now living and working in Port of Spain, Trinidad with his neighbour Peter Doig. His influences are complex and far ranging and his paintings are a celebration of the melting pot of cultures found in our increasingly globalised society.
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