Chris Ofili plus Turner and the Masters

Date January 31, 2010 | Map

What a shitty exhibition! No, this is not a value statement, well, not quite anyways, but Chris Ofili used elephant dung in his work. Yes, animal excrement. And I did not really expect to see so much of it.

Tate Logo, by cyberdees via

But I did not just visit Tate Britain for the Chris Ofili exhibition. Well, actually I did, but I was out comparably quickly, leaving just enough time to seize one of the very last chances to speed through Turner and the Masters. You can see I am no art critic, instead I seem to use my Tate Membership to turn Tate Britain and Modern into some kind of fast food joint for art consumption. But I do take in what I see, and I take position. And I would take my time if the art really appealed to me.

So what did I make out of the two exhibitions? First Chris Ofili: the moment I entered, I thought “Hey, some Aboriginal-inspired art!”, referring to the Australian Aborigines. Yet there was no single mention anywhere of Australia or of Indigenous Australians and their rich culture. So Zimbabweans seem to be working with dots as well, interesting.

Chris Ofili

Chris Ofili, Tate Britain

Then, of course, there was the dung. Every single…are these paintings? There’s far more than just paint on the canvas, including dung, but dung does not count as paint, does it? Ok, every single work in the first few rooms had a dung ball implanted somewhere on the canvas, and two further balls acted as a sort of pedestal on which the works were placed, instead of hanging them from the wall. No doubt, Chris Ofili was very productive in his dung phase, and I was suitably impressed by the sheer volume of work that must have gone into this quite high number of works. Most of the works, though, failed to engage me, because I did not find this type of work attractive or stimulating enough.

Also, I do have an issue with constructed provocation. It bores me, hence I ignore it. As soon as I saw a miniature picture of female genitalia, of which Ofili’s black Virgin Mary is full of, I rolled my eyes and looked no closer. I did more or less the same at the Pop Life exhibition at Tate Modern: I don’t go into galleries to watch adult-rated explicit material, especially not when the primary purpose is to provoke. I am sorry, but that is cheap provocation, intelligent art can and should do better.

The Upper Room, though, 13 of Ofili’s dung works arranged in one room, was really interesting, as there was quite a bit to discover. And it provided some sort of transition to his later works, on display in the remaining rooms. Finally no dung anymore! Some of Ofili’s later works seemed Rothko-inspired, and they were very different to his dung works. As so often, they unfolded their intellectual depth with some background knowledge, and this was provided by Chris Ofili himself via a Tate Shots video at the end of the exhibition. In hindsight, I would have wished to view the video before my visit, but that is a chance you might still have – the video is below, courtesy of Tate.

Overall, I must say that I am respecting Ofili a lot: his career is very interesting, and he has produced quite a large body of work. However, he certainly won’t ever be my favourite artist, and somehow I get the impression that his impact is partly based on his large body of work and not exclusively on quality. I will remember this in five weeks (this article has been written about five weeks after I went to see the exhibition)…but for now I must conclude that Ofili’s works do not inspire me very much. No doubt they work for others, but I prefer to spend my time with other stuff.

Turner and the Masters

So how about Turner and the Masters? The exhibition was extremely full, and as I do not particularly like full galleries, I sped through the rooms very quickly. Pity, because the format of this exhibition was very engaging: paintings from the masters were put side-by-side with Turner’s related paintings, so it became very obvious how he was inspired by the master painters.

Once I got the concept, I tried to guess which painting was Turner’s, and which was done by Canaletto, Rubens, Rembrandt or whatever other artists were on display. After a while, this exercise became easy: the paintings with more depth, more realistic lighting, finer detail, etc. were…not from Turner. Tate Britain may still have the Turner & the Masters battle game online, and although the deadline has passed by now, you probably can still play for fun to decide whether you like Turner better than the other big guns from the world of painting. My score is: Turner 1 – Masters 6. Guess I am not exactly a Turner fan.

Turner and the Masters – the battle

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