The present works Lovers Touches and Cherchez La Femme Calypso and Odysseus were both executed in 2004 during one of the most prolific periods of Ofili’s career, and only one year after his widely-acclaimed exhibition at the Biennale. They offer brilliant examples of the artist’s exceptional work on paper and his virtuosity in the mediums of watercolour, gouache and ink. Indeed, the luminous compositions offer hallucinatory visions of romance and warmth through spectacular technique, and this level of artistic excellence is undoubtedly intrinsic to Ofili’s greater oeuvre. In Lovers Touches saturated reds and greens explode against a black landscape as two figures embrace in a seductive kiss, their bodies as beautiful and dark as the night-time sky behind them. Here Ofili’s visual orchestration is broken down to its most rudimentary, and its style recalls the artist’s earlier use of collaged magazine cut-outs, as well as the aesthetics of African textiles. Cherchez La Femme Calypso and Odysseus also depicts two lovers in a sea of swirling abstractions, yet here temptation replaces physical touch as the nude female figure enticingly holds grapes above her mouth in a gesture of allure and invitation. As the ubiquitous symbol for temptation, the snake obstructs the space between the man and woman, rendering the electrifying blue scene frozen in a moment of intense desire. Significantly, Cherchez La Femme Calypso and Odysseus is part of Ofili’s celebrated Blue Riders series composed of exquisite midnight hues and profound tonal depths of blue. Of the colour, Ofili asserts, “Blue… was a difficult colour to work with… To work exclusively with blue was the biggest challenge… I was trying to find new ways to use a colour to the point of saturation, to the point where you don’t see it” (Chris Ofili cited in: Peter Doig, Carol Becker and David Adjaye, Chris Ofili, New York 2009, pp. 243-44).
As one of the most innovative artists of his generation, Ofili effortlessly transcends social and philosophical boundaries in his dreamlike compositions that in turn offer universal symbols of black power, as well as compelling images of male and female sexuality. Examining and challenging conventional ideals of beauty, black culture, history and exoticism, the atmospheric nocturnal landscapes of Lovers Touches and Cherchez La Femme Calypso and Odysseus stand as magnificent encapsulations of this extraordinary artist’s technical and painterly genius.
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