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June 29 2012

Impressionism, Degas and Shepard Fairey – the week in art

The French avant garde storm London's Royal Academy, plus shows from Peter Blake and Mark Wallinger, Olympic posters and Britain's biggest mural – all in your weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the week: From Paris: A Taste for Impressionism – Paintings from the Clark

The art of the French avant garde in the 19th century always has the power to startle because it is always underestimated. Newspapers tend to see it as safe; art historians analyse its bourgeois ideology. But the public knows better. The reason Monet, Renoir, Manet and their contemporaries remain so popular is not because people want "safe" art. It is because we can recognise true inspiration when we see it. The impressionists captured the feel of modern life in a way that was unprecedented. There's a lightness and reality to their paintings that is the taste of the world we inhabit. In these paintings, as their contemporary Karl Marx said of modernity, all that is solid melts into air.
Royal Academy, London W1, from 7 July until 23 September

Other exhibitions this week

Richard Wilson
The artist who filled Saatchi's tank with oil offers a sculptural take on a British pop icon, as he recreates the tottering bus from the final moments of the film The Italian Job.
De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, from 7 July until 1 October

Peter Blake
A hero of pop art revisits the music that has inspired him.
Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 7 October

Mark Wallinger
This quirky conceptualist always goes his own way – and it's worth following along.
Baltic, Gateshead, until 14 October

Olympic Posters
Chris Ofili's is the best and Tracey Emin's is the silliest, but whose will capture imaginations this summer?
Tate Britain, London SW1, until 23 September

Masterpiece of the week

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Young Spartans Exercising

The strange erotic intensity of this history painting by Degas is a clue to the passions that pulse within his later impressionist and post-impressionist works. Near-naked young men and women face each other in tense competition, a fantasy of some athletic sex war. Degas shows a similarly charged sexual obsessiveness in later paintings in the same gallery: through his eyes, even hair-brushing becomes a sadomasochist ritual, and as for an acrobat suspending herself by her teeth ...
National Gallery, London WC2

Image of the week

What we learned this week

That it's possible to redo Van Gogh in dominoes

What a jumbo jet nose, a ginormous megaphone and a bus spray-painted with bubbles have in common

That a contemporary collection of Middle Eastern photography has been acquired for the UK – and about time, too

How beautiful the new Turner, Monet and Twombly show is

What the wild men of Germany, Romania and Croatia look like

And finally

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June 22 2012

Jenny Saville, Yoko Ono and Ai Weiwei – the week in art

Saville is out to show she's the feminist Freud, Ono divulges her hopes, book tips and snapshots, and Ai Weiwei is barred from his own court hearing – all in your weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the week: Jenny Saville

Is this painter of pungent flesh a feminist Lucian Freud for the 21st century... or an overblown media phenomenon? Saville has a striking style, but critics have never agreed on the quality of her work. Big red blotches of pigment do not guarantee brilliance. Here is a chance to make up your mind about an artist who straddles fine art and pop culture.
· Modern Art Oxford, from 23 June until 16 September

Other exhibitions this week

Edvard Munch
One of the true giants of modern art brings a Scandinavian chill to the British summer.
· Tate Modern, London, from 28 June until 14 October

Diane Arbus
The extremes of pathos and mockery in this photographers' art epitomise the power of photography itself.
· Timothy Taylor gallery, London, from 26 June until 17 August

John Currin
Freaky paintings to amuse and appal.
· Sadie Coles HQ, London, until 18 August

Karla Black
Last chance to catch a show by this recent Turner nominee on her home turf.
· Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow, until 24 June

Masterpiece of the week

Rembrandt, Girl at a Window

Is she a servant, a courtesan? The gold chain around her neck suggests sensuality and is typical of the way Rembrandt glorified women. Whoever she is and whatever relationship – if any – she may have had with the painter, this young woman lives forever in his art.
· Dulwich Picture Gallery

Image of the week

What we learned this week

That Ai Weiwei grows ever more convinced of the need to stand up to Chinese authorities – after he is barred from his own hearing

What Yoko Ono's top book tips are, what her personal photo albums look like – and how she answered your questions

That the Stirling prize shortlist this year is chock full of austerity chic

Who Turner shortlister Luke Fowler has taken as his latest film subject

How Chris Ofili has found collaborating with the Royal Ballet – backdrops, bunions and all

And finally

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June 19 2012

Actaeon stations: Chris Ofili and the Royal Ballet

Chris Ofili has spent two years creating sets and costumes for an epic ballet inspired by Titian. What did he learn?

Chris Ofili comes with a seemingly gold-plated reputation: 1998 Turner prize winner, British representative at the 50th Venice Biennale, paintings held in some of the world's great collections. But two years ago, when he agreed to design a new production for the Royal Ballet, he suffered a flash of paranoia. "I was genuinely scared," he says. "If you fall flat on your face there, you break every bone in your body. You're not going to walk away."

And Ofili could think of a dozen reasons why he might fail. During most of his career, he had worked as a solitary and self-contained artist. He had never created designs for the stage before, let alone for ballet; and he'd certainly never been involved in an enterprise that promised – or threatened – to be as vast, crowded and competitive as Metamorphosis: Titian 2012.

Metamorphosis is the brainchild of the National Gallery curator Minna Moore Ede, who felt the Cultural Olympiad should be marked by some kind of grand Diaghilevean multi-genre collaboration. As a starting point, she proposed three Titian masterpieces depicting stories from Ovid's epic poem Metamorphoses: Diana and Actaeon, The Death of Actaeon, and Diana and Callisto. To accompany the literary strand of the project, in which three poets are writing contemporary responses to the works, the Royal Ballet is creating a three-part Titian ballet, with designs by a trio of major artists.

Moore Ede was determined to bring together radically different artists. She believed the scale and energy of Ofili's paintings made him a natural choice, but to offset his work's bacchanalian life force, she opted for the very precise sensibility of sculptor Conrad Shawcross, and a wild card in the form of the reliably unpredictable conceptual artist Mark Wallinger.

Already, that trio added up to an irrepressible mix. But Monica Mason, the Royal's director, had even bigger ambitions. Due to retire at the end of this July, she wanted Metamorphosis to be a farewell present to the seven choreographers with whom she had worked most closely, dividing them into a trio and two pairs. Three very different musical talents – Jonathan Dove, Nico Muhly and Mark-Anthony Turnage – were then asked to compose a score for each part.

"Until the curtain goes up," says Moore Ede, "no one has any idea how it will work." Ofili, speaking at the Victoria Miro gallery in London, can't wait. "This audience is really going to get their money's worth," he says, grinning. "I like Monica's attitude: 'I'm leaving now, so it's all yours. Make a mess and tidy up after yourselves.'"

Ofili was less jokey when he was first teamed up with his three choreographers: Will Tuckett, Liam Scarlett and Jonathan Watkins. He admits to deliberately stalling his way through most of the first year.

"I felt it just wasn't my world. I didn't have anything significant to contribute that wouldn't make me utterly embarrassed." Not only was he inhibited by his ignorance of ballet design, he was daunted by having to measure up to the Titians, feeling that, as the only contemporary painter involved, his work would be most directly compared to the master's. "Honestly, it felt like lambs to the slaughter."

So he turned to Titian's source material: Ovid's story about the young hunter Actaeon, who spies on the virgin goddess Diana while she is bathing with her nymphs; as a punishment, he is turned into a stag and torn apart by his own hounds. Ofili found it a "genuinely gripping read. All of its themes – desire, temptation, pride, beauty, the joy of the kill – felt relevant. The project got into my veins as a story." His confidence was boosted by his first serious meeting with the choreographers, who were all interested in staying close to Ovid's narrative. "We got on well, and it was easy to decide between us which were the most important elements of the story."

Ofili produces a photograph of the backdrop he designed. On one side is Diana, standing beneath her signature crescent moon and a giant curving phallus ("the male burden of desire"). On the other side, nymphs ripple upwards from a bubbling stream. Figures, landscape and symbolism metamorphose into each other with a fluidity reminiscent of Blake, an artist Ofili regards as one of his "torchbearers". But the design is also influenced by the landscape of Trinidad, where Ofili now lives. "There are waterfalls there that lie deep in the forest," he says. "Often when I go walking there, I hear voices of people I can't see." It made him think of Actaeon walking through a forest that was alive with his own sexual fantasies.

Most artists leave the actual painting of the backdrop to professional set-painters. But Ofili opted to do it himself, by hand. "The scale is amazing," he says. "When you first see the stage, that's what gives you the clutch in the intestines." It took him four weeks and the technical staff at the Royal Opera House thought he was mad. Yet, says Ofili, "hands down, it was one of the best painting experiences of my life".

He had an equally good time with the costumes. His first instinct was to take inspiration from Picasso and the "crazy" sculptural creations he created for Erik Satie's 1917 cubist ballet Parade. But the more time Ofili spent around the Royal's dancers, the more he wanted to ensure they could move freely. "I wanted them to feel comfortable, so they could push themselves."

He opted for all-in-one leotard and tights, customised for each character with head-dresses, cloaks, jackets, body hair, and handheld puppet heads for the hounds. He regards the work of the costume department, who converted his sketches into moving, breathing outfits, as little short of genius. But it's the dancers who impressed him most. "One night," he says, "I was standing in the wings and this girl came off stage. She'd looked amazing while she was dancing: shiny and happy. But as she came off she was crying. She said she was in agony, she had flu, she had a new baby and her nose was running like a little child's. Then she went back on and the light just flushed back into her. I thought, 'This is extraordinary.'"

Their bodies fascinate Ofili, too. Marianela Núñez is dancing Diana and he has become obsessed by her back. "The muscles are so alive, so expressive – it's like a face." As for the dancers' feet, he winces at the thought of all the blisters, blood and bunions he has witnessed. "Don't get me started. I had no idea feet could look like that."

When the project was first proposed, Ofili fretted about spending so much time away from work he was already absorbed in. "I knew it was going to be a huge brain-drain." But the intimacy and the fun of collaboration have been a revelation; he hadn't realised how much he would learn, nor how natural the transition from studio to theatre would eventually feel. "Working for the stage," he says, "you're playing a game of pretend. The curtain opens, the audience is absorbed for a period of time. That's very close to what I do as a painter. I make stuff up and invite people to look at it, and then off they go. I like that. I like how simple it is. I like how very wonderful it can be."

The details

The ballet
Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 is at the Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020-7304 4000), in rep 14-20 July

The exhibition
The Titians will be shown at the National Gallery, London WC2, with sets and costumes created for the ballet from 11 July to 23 September

The screening
The 16 July performance will be simultaneously relayed to a large screen at Trafalgar Square, and to 18 other venues across the UK © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 04 2011

August 23 2011

RCA Black and the table that thinks it's a woman

The Royal College of Art is trying to reinvent itself as a beacon of diversity – with a show of work by its black students. Hannah Pool enters a world of wigs, furniture and whirlwinds

When Ekua McMorris received her letter of acceptance from the Royal College of Art in 2007, she was intimidated by the thought of attending such a pillar of the establishment. How, she wondered, was "someone like her" going to fit in? "I was brought up as a Rastafarian, which is anti-imperialism. And here I am, a single parent living in Hackney with no money, about to attend the Royal College of Art."

Fast forward to the present and McMorris, now a photographer, is the co-curator of RCA Black, an exhibition celebrating the work of African and African-Caribbean artists. "There have only been 85 black students at the RCA in the last five years," she says. "That's out of a body of over 800 per year. We wanted to showcase these hidden people." Each artist had to be either an RCA student or graduate, of African or African-Caribbean heritage, and producing work of a high standard. "It didn't have to be new work," says McMorris. "It just had to be good."

The term RCA Black refers to the artists rather than their subject matter: the work doesn't have to speak of race, skin colour or ethnicity. "It could just be work," says McMorris. "Not every black person is making work about blackness."

RCA Black is not just about celebrating hidden talent, though: it's also meant to send a message to any students who might think the RCA is a "whites only" place.

The exhibition, which includes work by 23 artists, features everything from fine art, photography and sculpture to product design, jewellery and metal work. Catherine Anyango, a Swedish-Kenyan artist and RCA tutor, is showing the original illustrations from her 2010 graphic novel version of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Written with David Zane Mairowitz, it was described as "extraordinarily beautiful" by Rachel Cooke in the Observer. "I don't have any other work to do with being black," says Anyango. "I grew up in Kenya, so I have a different perspective from people who grew up here."

On a lighter note, work by contemporary artist Harold Offeh is also included: Hairography, a photographic self-portrait, shows him in blond wig and red lipstick, whipping his hair about. And, as well as a painting by Chris Ofili, there will be two beautiful pieces of furniture by Simone Brewster: Negress Lounge and Mammy Table. Made from stained tulip wood, the pieces are a far cry from the sort of thing you would find in the average living room. "I wanted to ask: what if you have furniture inspired by the black female form?" says Brewster. "I looked at representations of the black female form in art, particularly Wilfredo Lam's The Murmur, which is a disturbing picture of a woman with lopsided breasts."

Brewster, the other co-curator, says of the show's concept: "We're not the same. But we are a group of individuals who have gone through similar experiences, gone through the same institute."

But is there such a thing as black art? Isn't it a rather reductive, limiting notion? "I tend to shy away from things that ask me to exhibit because I'm black and because I'm a woman," says Anyango. "I don't feel either is an achievement. But in the context of the RCA and the design world, they are both very white, so I understand the reasoning for this show."

The term "black art" is only reductive if you choose to see it as such, says McMorris. "Black art can be anything. It can be a landscape without any reference to colour or culture."

The curators agree the concept can be problematic, though. "We never refer to art as white art," says Brewster. "It is just art. Why would it need to be known as something else? I wouldn't imagine the processes I would go through would be any different if I were a white artist. Only my references would change."

Frank Bowling, whose painting The Abortion features in the show, is more direct. "There's no such thing as black art," says Bowling, who was the first black artist to be elected a member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 2005. "Black faces don't make black art."

Asked what advice he has for aspiring black artists, Bowling, now in his 70s, says: "Go to the museums and make art that can measure up to the museums. Make art better than anything you've ever seen before." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 20 2011

Top British artists to design 2012 Olympics posters

Howard Hodgkin, Bridget Riley, Tracey Emin and Chris Ofili among selected 12 as countdown starts to London festival

Posters for next year's Olympics and Paralympics will be designed by top British artists including Howard Hodgkin, Bridget Riley, Tracey Emin and Chris Ofili, it was announced.

The 12 commissioned artists were named to coincide with the one-year countdown to next year's London 2012 festival – part of the Cultural Olympiad celebrations – which opens on 21 June .

Among those on the panel that whittled more than 100 names from the art world down to 12 was the Tate's director, Sir Nicholas Serota, who predicted "colour, vitality, energy and diversity" in the 2012 posters that will be seen all over the capital next year.

Six male and six female artists have been chosen. The others asked to create a piece were Fiona Banner, Michael Craig-Martin, Martin Creed, Anthea Hamilton, Gary Hume, Sarah Morris, Bob and Roberta Smith and Rachel Whiteread.

The posters are still at the design stage but Emin, who will create one for the Paralympics, said she wanted to do something that celebrated the coolness of London.

She is considering drawing prominent landmarks such as the London Eye and the houses of parliament, adding words that offer encouragement to the participants. She is still working on her final design.

Emin said she was surprised but pleased to be asked.

"The posters are intrinsic to the Olympics, they are the things that are going to stay around," she added.

She had been sent a book of posters from previous games, she said, but was unlikely to take inspiration from the designs.

"A lot of them are about values which aren't so important now," she said. "I'm interested in the party side – the celebration."

The artists have been asked to produce a poster that is identifiable with their own style. "For me, that could be a bit tricky," Emin admitted. "The poster has got to be for everybody and it has got to be a celebration of London. The Olympics is going to show the world that London can really throw a good party. It is going to give everyone a high."

Hodgkin is the only one of the artists of the 12 who has experience in this area, having been commissioned by Andy Warhol to produce a poster for the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics.

Hodgkin said he had a pragmatic reason for agreeing to the Olympic commission.

"I said yes because I thought it would be nice for a lot of people to see my work," he said.

His enthusiasm for the Olympics was also rather more muted than some, as he admitted looking forward to it "only in so far as there'll be something else to see on the telly".

One of the younger artists on the list of 12 is Anthea Hamilton, who was clearly more enthused by the games than Hodgkin: "It's really exciting – you can feel the tension building in the city," she said. She called the commission "a big honour and a nice surprise", adding: "I get a lot of the images which I use to make my work from the city, everyday life and mass media, so the idea that I'll get to make a work that goes back into that is a really nice way for me to develop."

The London 2012 festival, which celebrates the Olympics through the arts, will feature artists such as the late Pina Bausch, Plan B, Mike Leigh, Leona Lewis, Miranda Hart and Damon Albarn.

Tickets for the festival go on sale in October but many events are free, including one of the first and most intriguing, which takes place on Lake Windermere in Cumbria. The spectacular show with music, drumming and pyrotechnics features the French company Les Commandos Percu.

London's mayor, Boris Johnson, said: "A year from today, on midsummer's day, the festivities will begin with the launch of the London 2012 festival.

"The capital will be alive with extraordinary music, film, art, poetry, performance – a festival on a scale never before seen to celebrate the greatest sporting show on Earth." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 10 2010

Queen of arts

It's 25 years since Victoria Miro set up her first gallery in London. She's lived through the lean times, the YBAs and a new era of global markets and has quietly become one of the most influential dealers in Britain. It's all down to intuition, she says, in this rare interview

Grayson Perry, the Turner prize-winning artist who, according to Wikipedia, is "known mainly for his ceramic vases and cross dressing", says: "When I was younger, I was always really envious of the artists who were with Victoria Miro." Perry had been with the Anthony d'Offay gallery in the 1990s but had "been feeling a bit left on the shelf" when the painter, Peter Doig, recommended him to Miro.

"I would always hear good things from her artists about how well she treated them," he says, laughing, "and I can now confirm that everything I heard was true. She is not interested in neophilia, the insatiable hunger for the new that is one of the terrible afflictions of contemporary society. She takes the long view, which is what an artist really needs from a gallerist."

Victoria Miro is the quiet woman of British art: visionary but not in the grandstanding way of some of her more famous counterparts. Or, as Grayson Perry puts it, "not tainted with the hoo-ha and the celebrity glitz that, at the height of the YBA era, almost consumed the art". Her gallery began life in 1985 in 750 sq ft of space on Cork Street; it now takes up 17,000 sq ft on the edge of Hoxton: a metaphor, then, for the trajectory of British art over the last three decades.

She is currently celebrating, albeit in a quiet way, her gallery's 25th – and her own 65th – birthday. In acknowledgement of these landmarks, she has decided for the first time to give an in-depth interview. ??First, though, she insists on walking me around her latest exhibition, In the Company of Alice, a wonderful group show that features portraits by the late figurative painter Alice Neel, and responses to her work by the likes of Chris Ofili, Doig, Chantal Joffe, Marlene Dumas and Elizabeth Peyton.

Although she died 26 years ago, Alice Neel, who has become something of a feminist icon because of her bohemian lifestyle and her unflinching dedication to her work, is Miro's current passion. "We put on the first European show of her work in 2004," she says, proudly, "and, in the six years since, she has come in from the cold." This is indeed the case, as evinced by the Whitechapel gallery's career-spanning Alice Neel retrospective that opened on 8 July.

Her decision to take on Neel's artistic estate was made after much thought, and it says much about Miro's way of working: her combination of a deep love for, and knowledge about, art and her sharp business acumen. "She really does care about art in an almost old-fashioned way," elaborates Grayson Perry, "But her aesthetic judgments and her ability to nurture demanding people are matched by a very astute business sense. She's low-key but she has always made some incredibly smart moves."

Among those smart moves was Miro's showing of the Disasters of War series in 1993, the first solo show by Jake and Dinos Chapman, which she later sold to the Tate. In 2002, her gallery was selected as one of the 18 most important international art galleries by the Royal Academy for its Galleries Show. Miro's keen eye for new talent was highlighted when, in 2004, she hosted the first London show of a recent graduate, Raqib Shaw. The entire show – 18 drawings and five paintings – sold out. Her stable now includes Doig, Ofili and Perry as well as the film-maker Isaac Julien, the painter Chantal Joffe and the conceptual artist Idris Khan. She also represents one of the world's leading art photographers, William Eggleston.

And, although the name Victoria Miro has not impinged on the public consciousness in the same way as, say, the name Jay Jopling, she has had the odd – utterly unwelcome – moment of media controversy. Way back in Cork Street in 1987, just two years into her career, and two years after Charles Saatchi had also opened his first groundbreaking gallery on Boundary Road, north London, Miro hosted a show by the German artist and political activist Hans Haacke in her small gallery. Entitled Global Marketing, it consisted of a large black cube on which Haacke had detailed Saatchi & Saatchi's various business dealings in apartheid-era South Africa.

"Charles walked though the gallery in silence as I recall," she says, "but various friends of his came and they were all very angry. Charles never set foot in the gallery again for seven years and, to this day, he has never mentioned the show."

With the benefit of hindsight, does she think it was a good idea to give Haacke's fervently anti-corporate imagination such free rein? "Oh yes. Artists do what they have to do. And I think Charles would understand that. As a gallerist, you can advise them but you cannot ever get in the way of the work."

In 2005, Miro found herself in the middle of a media firestorm when she sold a series of paintings by Chris Ofili called The Upper Room to the Tate for £705,000. It was revealed that Ofili was also a serving trustee of the Tate, and in the ensuing controversy, a newspaper published a private email from Miro to Tate director Nicholas Serota. It acknowledged the "sensitive" nature of the transaction and laid bare the kind of hustling that is common when private galleries do business with major institutions, but which is usually conducted in secret: "There is also extra pressure as Chris is getting married next week and I suspect he may be less willing than previously to wait for an extended period in terms of finance."

The work did go to the Tate, though only after Miro, at Serota's request, raised £300,000 towards the purchase from five different sources, all of whom insisted on anonymity. The Daily Telegraph's art critic attempted to put the purchase in perspective, describing it as "the bargain of the century" and congratulating Miro and Ofili for "acting not in their own interests but for the public good". In 2006, however, the Charity Commission censured the Tate for breaking its rules over the purchase – though it cleared them of breaking any criminallaw.

Now that the dust has settled, what is her view on the sale of The Upper Room? "It is a masterpiece and it had to be placed in a major public collection." she says, "Despite huge interest in the work internationally, Chris and I wanted it to remain in this country. There was no way the works could be split up. Naturally I did all I could to help secure its long-term future. It belongs to the nation now, and long after you and I are gone, it will continue to give pleasure and inspiration to generations to come."

This may sound a trifle disingenuous but, looking at the purchase in purely monetary terms, the Tate, despite Miro's hard bargaining on behalf of her artist, does seem to have landed quite a bargain. Two weeks ago, a single painting by Ofili sold at Christie's for almost £1.9m.

We have lunch in a large, airy space designed by the architect Claudio Silvestrin to complement Trevor Horne's adjacent two-storey gallery, looking out over Miro's landscaped portion of the stretch of canal known as the Wenlock Basin. ??It is difficult to believe you are in inner-city London just a stone's throw from the noisy City Road.

In person, Miro lives up to her reputation as the "grand dame of British art". She is soft-spoken and effortlessly charming in that understated way that betokens a particular kind of well-bred, upper-middle-class, English background.

Surprisingly, her father was a stallholder in London's old Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market and she was educated at Copthall grammar school in north London. Her parents were art lovers, and the annual family holidays were cultural forays to Rome, Venice and Florence. She was "obsessed with making art even as a child" and eventually attended Slade art school with ambitions to become a full-time painter.

"The artistic urge is that one has to do it however much of a struggle it is, but I did seem to lose that urge somewhat once I had children," she says, wistfully. "Unlike today, where people seem to miraculously do everything, I was immersed in family. The creativity just seemed to disappear. It was a very quiet period for me, but I liked that, too."

She has been married to her husband, Warren Miro, a businessman, for 40 years. He is not directly involved in the running of the gallery but oversaw the building design of the place we are sitting in. They have a son, Oliver, and a daughter, Alex, who were once babysat by Jake Chapman and Sam Taylor-Wood. Last year, Miro became a grandmother when Alex give birth to a daugher, Sophia.

For a while in the early 1970s, Miro taught art in secondary schools in Slough and Battersea. "I quite liked teaching but, looking back, I can see that what I was really fascinated by was gallery life in London. I used to go to all these strange little galleries that are now long gone – Beaux Arts, Robert Fraser – and think that maybe someday they might be interested in my work."

The memory of that time and those strange little places haunts her still, but not in the way you might expect. "I always remember that feeling of optimism I had back then when I see students come into my gallery with their work. They are always so interested and hopeful. In a way, I have come to see that well of expectation as very sad somehow."

She sighs and sips her mint tea. You wonder, just for a moment, how she negotiates the cut-throat world of global art dealing, but sense, too, the self-belief, the steeliness that attends her famous intuition. "It really is a harsh world, the art world, much more so than it was when I started out," she says. "You have to be incredibly strong and ambitious as well as gifted." Or, I think, you have to employ someone to be strong and ambitious on your behalf.

In 1985, when she took over Robert Fraser's gallery space in Cork Street, the London art world was, she says, "a very small world, almost a village". Fraser, though, who had hung out with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the late 60s, and is the subject, alongside a handcuffed Mick Jagger, of Richard Hamilton's famous painting, Swingeing London, was one of its bohemian aristocrats.

"I met him when he was dying from Aids, alas. I remember that, when he handed over the keys, he said: 'You'll never make a contemporary art gallery work in this country.' It was very sad, his sense of disillusionment."

Miro initially concentrated on what might be called conceptual minimalism with artists such as Richard Tuttle, Antony Gormley and the late Ian Hamilton Finlay, a close friend whose artistic estate she still oversees. She tells me how the famously difficult Finlay successfully sued the famously opinionated critic Brian Sewell, for writing that he was not a real artist because other people made his work. "Given all that's passed between, it seems almost quaint, doesn't it?"

Finlay also took objection to a negative review by the art critic, Waldemar Januszczak, and insisted Miro ban him from the gallery for ever more. "It's not an ideal situation for a new gallery to have to ban a reviewer, but Ian was adamant," she says, giggling. "Waldemar took it quite well, considering, but he does remind me of it every time we meet."

In the late 80s, Miro opened a second gallery in Florence where, she says, "there were no other big contemporary art galleries to tread on the toes of". In 1990, though, as the recession hit hard, she was forced to close it order to survive. "I tried my best to keep it going but, in the end, I had to close it to keep the London gallery going." How bad was that recession for the art market, exactly? "Oh, very bad. The buying and selling just stopped. Then the Japanese art market, which had been so buoyant, collapsed. It was very severe. An absolute shock to the system."

Is she worried for the current gallery as we enter another what looks like being another prolonged period of austerity? "Oh, it's very different now," she says jauntily. "There are so many strong markets internationally: Korea, China, Hong Kong, South America. The art market is truly global now and is changing constantly. And the gallery is much bigger and more secure. Back then, it was just myself and my assistant, Clare, who is still with me. We had to watch the budget so closely that we could never afford to have an illustration on our invitation cards, just plain text. People thought," she says, chuckling, "that we were being minimalist but really it was just being frugal."

In the 90s, of course, the British art world changed dramatically and in a way few could have predicted. Signalled by Freeze, the now famous group show curated by Damien Hirst in July 1988, the coming of the YBA era saw the London art "village" that Victoria Miro operated in suddenly become a market-driven megalopolis. "I was aware from the beginning that a change was in the air," she says, "mainly because I had Jake (Chapman) working as technician for me and he'd come to art fairs with me to install and you could just sense something was stirring. What, exactly, was hard to say. Initially, there was this incredible energy and then that started translating into work of real substance."

In the era of White Cube and Gagosian, Saatchi and the shark, did she feel at all pressurised to keep up, to go global and simply follow the market? She shakes her head,

"I suppose my progression was more organic and definitely artist-driven. I moved from Cork Street because the artists felt limited by the small space. They even took an active part in looking for, and helping to make, the new space. Then, I took on a partner, Glenn Scott Wright, in 1997. It was all very much artist-led. It wasn't me thinking, Oh, Jay's getting a bigger space and Larry's coming over. No, that's not really my way."

In her time, Miro has seen the London gallery scene change in two ways. Commercial galleries like her own, once the haunt of dealers and insiders, now attract visitors in much the same way as their bigger, state-funded galleries do. (One of her early group shows in Wharf Road attracted 4,000 visitors.) Post-Saatchi, too, the way galleries do business has not just become more global, but more competitive, more combative and more macho.

"It's so market-driven now and most of the mega-dealers are men, and some of them can be quite aggressive and persistent when they go after an artist. It's hard when you lose an artist to another, bigger dealer. You do feel wounded by the defection, but it's the nature of being a gallery and you just have to come to terms with it. I am what I am – a woman dealer. I know it's a cliché but I do think women approach the work on a much more intuitive level; it's less about market and machismo and more about artistic value."

The artist and film-maker Isaac Julien confirms Miro's view and stresses her commitment to her stable. "She is a rare breed in the sense that she has an almost cerebral relationship to the work that comes from a deep passion for art. And maybe that, in turn, comes from once being an artist herself. Her success is refreshing because it runs counter to the completely market-driven world we find ourselves in now."

I ask Victoria Miro, in conclusion, who has been her biggest inspiration? She does not hesitate for a second in answering. "Oh, Betty Parsons, definitely," she says, referring to the pioneering postwar New York gallery owner. "She was amazing, so single-minded. She had this incredible stable of artists at one point – Rothko, Pollock, Barnett Newman – but they had this meeting with her where they told her not to take on any new, younger artists. She just went her own way and continued to do what she wanted to do, so they all left. To me, she was the ideal gallery owner, always moving forward, always following her instinct, whatever the cost."

She sounds, I say, quite familiar. There is a smile and an almost imperceptible nod. The quiet visionary of British art remains, after 25 pioneering years, just that: quiet and visionary. Betty, you feel, would be proud. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 14 2010

Christie's sale dazzles public with 33 centuries of masterpieces for four days

Art auction covering work from 13BC bronze items to Picasso, Klimt and Warhol expected to break world sale records

It is surely the shortest ever art exhibition to cover the longest period of history. For only four days, Christie's is showing some breathtakingly impressive examples of artistic achievement stretching over 33 centuries.

The show at the auction house's London headquarters is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see some amazing works, everything from 13BC bronze cooking vessels to some of the finest 13th century illuminated manuscripts to an important blue period Picasso. The exhibition ends at 4.30pm on Thursday because all the works are being sold – most of them this month and next.

Christie's European president, Jussi Pylkkanen, said the auction house had decided to put on a curated show of this year's highlights because the auction season was shaping up to be the strongest for a generation. "I can honestly say we've never had an exhibition of this quality in my 25 years here," he said.

Certainly, both Christie's and Sotheby's have persuaded sellers that 2010 is the year to sell. Pylkkanen said: "The art market is particularly firm at the moment, there is a flight to quality and we have what I would term 'medici collectors', who are keen to buy the very, very best irrespective of the categories in which they are being offered."

And the super-rich buyers are coming from far more parts of the world than ever before. Western European and American buyers are now joined by Russian oligarchs and secretive Asian and Middle Eastern millionaires – or billionaires – keen to create art collections.

There are high expectations that the auction record for a work of art will be set in next week's London auctions at Christie's and Sotheby's, after it was twice broken this year – first by a Giacometti Walking Man statue, and then by a Picasso in New York that sold for $106m (£70m).

The best bet to break the record is, arguably, a Picasso being sold for charity in aid of the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation. Portrait of Angel Fernández de Soto, or The Absinthe Drinker, is conservatively estimated at £30-£40m.

The Christie's show groups works thematically – "power", "patronage", "women in art". It is a free opportunity for the public – the majority of who probably can't quite stretch to the asking prices, at least not this year – to see jaw-dropping art.

In one room you can see a Chris Ofili next to a Gustav Klimt deathbed portrait of Ria Munk, who killed herself in dramatic fashion – she aimed a shotgun in to her chest – after she fell out with her lover. In another room is a Warhol Silver Liz – Elizabeth Taylor, that is – opposite a colourful Matisse nude unseen in public since the year after it was painted. And in another room is a heartstopping Monet waterlily painting, not far from a Van Gogh work executed while he was in voluntary confinement at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole.

• Juxtaposed: Masterpieces Through the Ages is at Christie's in St James's until 8.30pm tomorrow, and then 9am-4.30pm on Wednesday and Thursday. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 03 2010

Beyond the tears

Chris Ofili reflects on how moving to the Caribbean has helped him go beyond the grief of his earlier paintings

January 31 2010

Glitter and opulence

Tate Britain, London

The retrospective of Chris Ofili's paintings now filling several galleries at Tate Britain is exactly what you might expect – opulent, glittery, dazzling, gorgeous. If you have seen even one of his works you can probably extrapolate the massed effects of 60 more. But what is surprising, and dismaying, about this show is just how indispensable these effects turn out to be when Ofili starts working without them.

An early star, not yet 30 when he won the Turner prize in 1998, Ofili is the most famous black artist in British history. This has nothing to do with the dung. Rudy Giuliani may have accidentally ramped Ofili's reputation by threatening to prosecute the Brooklyn Museum for showing his black virgin propped on dried elephant ordure, but the mayor ought to have observed that this Anglo-African Catholic was applying the identical substance to paintings concerned with slavery. The dung is innocent, evenly distributed. Over here, naysayers were more confused by the references to blaxploitation movies and gangsta rap.

But those days are gone. The controversial works now belong to museums, blue-chip collectors and history itself. Seventies centrefolds, Don King, Ice T, Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars, all mixed up with racial stereo­types in a manner commonly considered provocative: these look like period pieces of the recent past.

But are they provocative, humorous, ironic? Everything is kept in play. Ofili's even-handedness, anarchic to some, non-committal to others, is so accomplished that one visitor was troubled by the absence of anything to roil the sheer optical pleasures.

The Tate has them in abundance. Here is Ofili's fantastic Afromantic idyll, keyed in the red, black and green of Marcus Garvey's pan-African flag. An Eden of ganja, ripe bananas and heat glowing in a haze of glitter, the paintings are enormous, intricate, abundant, panoramic glorifications of love.

She reclines like an odalisque, a constellation of red and green dots bursting from one nipple like stars. The contours of his body twine with hers: behind, before, above, between, below. The scene pulses with rapture.

The method was laid down almost from the start. Beads, glitter, map pins, sequins, paint used like ink, batik, henna decoration; applied in African cave art dots. Teeming excess and all of it multiplied by the use of resin beneath which images appear suspended as if underwater or trapped in amber – and then Ofili would add another layer by painting on top.

You can see this put to tremendous effect in a work like Spaceshit (1995)with its planetary shapes formed of tiny dots, each semi-transparent so that the painting acquires spacey depths. From a distance, they come across as intergalactic drifts; nearer, they look like Monet waterlilies reprised for modern times and eventually like hard, bright particles. The closer you stand the more there is to see, until you lose sight of the overall picture. Each painting has its own prolific micro-life.

Precise yet stoned, sophisticated yet simple: that is the basic proposition, a dichotomy between the highly disciplined technique and the blatantly swoony effects. You have to wait for the physical appeal to fade (if it ever does) to get down to what is really going on. And most often it seems to be just that: something unresolved, ongoing.

For some, this is Ofili's great strength, this improvisational mix of all and every-thing, like an open-ended poem or song. But it puts everything on the same level. A painting may include afro heads rushing about like fireworks or tiny photographs of the murdered schoolboy Stephen Lawrence and yet the glorious gaudiness is the main event, the constant. It is not that one painting looks like another, for Ofili has quite a range of effects involving density, motion, brightness, mood; it is more that the tone scarcely varies.

And this is exposed, quite literally, in the recent works painted in Trinidad where Ofili now lives. Almost every distinguishing characteristic has been pared away – layering, resin, glitter and all – to leave nothing but unadorned paint; and images that have nowhere to hide. A couple of islanders strumming banjos in the blue-black night, Judas dangling from a noose apparently added as an afterthought; the raising of Lazarus in the style of Matisse; a deep purple nude accepting a sundowner in what appears to be a stylised cocktail ad.

Ofili experiments with styles, experiments with inky blackness so that one sometimes has to peer into the surface to make out the forms. He makes an obvious verbal/visual pun on Der Blaue Reiter – two ultramarine horsemen in a midnight-blue forest – with Blue Riders. The colours remain rich, but the paintings are crude, mannered, struggling to make anything at all of their chosen content. They feel uniformly powerless and inert.

In the past, it has sometimes seemed as if imagery itself presented a quandary: not so much how but what to paint, hardly an unusual dilemma for an artist. Now Ofili seems to be fixed upon the latter, with these narratives, myths and local scenes, but uncertain with the former. Put politely, it's a bold departure.

But it sends you back to question the past. Did all those proliferating dots, swirls and patterns ever add up? Was it all as playful as people claimed? For answers consult the centrepiece of this show, The Upper Room (1999-2002), with its 13 magnificent panels arranged in a darkened chamber like the figures at the Last Supper.

Each depicts a monkey holding a cup, though the outline of the largest is dissolving in the golden surface, beneath a gilded dung clod of a halo. Each glows, quite literally, with its own luminous colour. Solemn and reverential, yet plainly tinged with the absurd, they keep a tension between monkey business and Bible story that defies explanation.

Rothko claimed that his numinous oblongs represented God; perhaps a monkey can stand in for Christ. Yet that does not seem to be what's going on in this spectacularly intense yet vague installation. The adoration of colour is obvious in each beautifully worked surface, the devotion is all there in the making. This is painting as an act of ­worship. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 29 2010

Voyage of rediscovery

This journey through the culture of the Black Atlantic – from Primitivist modernism through to postmodern video work – is full of startling insights, even if it eventually loses its way

Jacob Lawrence's Street to Mbari, a picture in pencil, tempera and gouache of a crowded market in Nigeria in 1964, is the kind of work that curators put into a group exhibition at their peril. It is so good, so convincing, that it almost blinds you to the merits of every other artist in Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic, which opens today at Tate Liverpool. And yet Street to Mbari – a portrait of Africa by a great African American artist – is also an argument in favour of this exhibition, and a way to penetrate its complex ideas.

Tate Liverpool seems an apposite place to explore the bleaker aspects of the Atlantic. The museum is contained within the forbidding 19th-century warehouses of the Albert Dock, which speaks more lucidly than any other British setting of the history of the slave trade, documented in detail at the International Slavery Museum nearby.

But Afro Modern is more complex than that. It is inspired by a book, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, first published in 1993 by the British cultural critic Paul Gilroy. Gilroy's thesis, reacting against essentialist Afrocentrism, is that black culture's response to the modern world, into which Africans were transported so violently, has been ambivalent. As I understand it – and it is a difficult book – Gilroy believes that although African migration in the 18th century was brutally enforced, the development of black consciousness in the Americas and Britain was never just a rejection of "white" culture, but an engagement with it. Black culture, in other words, has crossed and re-crossed the Atlantic – at first in chains, but then willfully and creatively.

Those journeys are well captured by the work of Jacob Lawrence, who was born in Atlantic City in 1917 and in the aftermath of the Great Depression, created the most important American history painting cycle of the 20th century, The Migration Series. It portrays the journeys of black people from the oppressive south to the northern industrial cities in search of work and freedom. Lawrence's Street to Mbari is the exhilarated, ecstatic, yet composed and detailed record of an outsider's response to Africa. In Lawrence's eyes, Africa is the new world. It is a painting that travels; not a document of "homecoming", but as a record of complex perspectives, of what was gained as well as lost.

The show is more subversive than it first appears. Yes, there are nods to the Harlem Renaissance – notably poems by Langston Hughes illustrated by Aaron Douglas – and documents from the civil rights era, including a telling work by David Hammons in which black faces and hands press desperately at the glass panel of the door to a university admissions office. But here too are works by white artists who were entranced by "the primitive". Picasso's 1909 Bust of a Woman comes from the same period as Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and shares its deliberately jarring, shocking transformation of a face into a carved wooden African mask.

Man Ray's photograph Noir et Blanche (1926) portrays the famous Parisian avant garde muse Kiki of Montmartre resting her pearl-complexioned face next to a mask from Africa. The picture finds a similarity in the almond shapes of their faces that, too, echoes Les Demoiselles. These images take us to the very heart of the fascination with African art that so inspired European modernists a century ago.

These are artists whose views on race would probably seem highly offensive to us. And not so long ago, an exhibition such as this would have felt obliged to point this out, to provide long wall texts explaining that modern art's "primitivism" was the racist culture of an age of empire. But this exhibition is far more ambivalent: it documents the jazz age dances of Josephine Baker as comic, self-conscious, dramatisations of the kind of fantasy Picasso indulges in Les Demoiselles, with watercolours and magazine photographs that reveal how she became an icon for Parisian artists. It sets a painting of Harlem by the strange British painter Edward Burra alongside jazzy works by the Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas – the pure shapes of Douglas's murals contrasting with Burra's meaty caricatures.

Near Lawrence's street scene is Constantin Brancusi's abstract sculpture The Blonde Negress (1926): a shining metallic vision of a futurist head that resembles a cross between yet another African mask and a design for a beautiful robot. Brancusi's eroticised, idolised visions of an abstract human form indicate how modernists drew on Africa to invent a utopian model for a new humanity. Elsewhere, a film by the surrealist Maya Deren records Voodoo rituals in 1940s Haiti – the very appearance of which reminds us that no history of the Black Atlantic world can just be aesthetic or art-historical.

One of the best things about Gilroy's book was the way in which it broke up the distinctions between high art and popular culture, and between history and the new, that limit conventional views of modernism. The Black Atlantic discusses JMW Turner's 1840 painting of a slave ship and tells how its bloody sky and sea scattered with flailing African bodies so upset its first owner, John Ruskin, that he sold it. Yet it also discusses how Quincy Jones was influenced by a stay in Sweden in what Gilroy sees as his pivotal role in the reinvention of jazz. Gilroy sees such music as one of the fundamental black contributions to a "counter-culture of modernity".

In the early galleries of Afro Modern, the curators follow this principle, mixing jazz culture and art together – Langston Hughes's poems are modelled on blues lyrics and eerily evoke Robert Johnson, but read with enormous weight and clarity on the page. Yet in the later rooms of the show, recent art is treated in isolation from that kind of larger cultural history. The least impressive room is the 1960s display, whose protest art seems narrow in comparison with the possibilities of 1920s modernism: you simply don't get the same sense of creative dialogue between black and white artists, although Frank Bowling's painting Who's Afraid of Barney Newman?, which reinvents Newman's abstract vertical bands in tropical colours and places on them a spectral map of South America, is a highly honourable exception. The last room presents Chris Ofili's painting Captain Shit, with its psychedelic black superhero, whose powerful features suggest Japanese comics. But offering the work in isolation from 1990s hip-hop, whose aesthetic it so clearly shares, is surely a bit po-faced.

In fact, the entire argument about the Black Atlantic seems to dissipate as the show goes on. Only fleetingly does its big themes surface in the contemporary work on display. In Ellen Gallagher's spooky painting Bird in Hand (2006), for instance, which resembles a design for a crazed countercultural remake of Pirates of the Carribean. And there is a hypnotically horrible film by American artist Kara Walker, Eight Possible Beginnings; or the Creation of African-America, in which the history of the US is told by puppets in black-and-white silhouette. They begin in folksy, sickly-sweet nostalgia, but rapidly degenerate into scenes of rape and abuse. I can't count the number of times I have encountered films by Walker in group shows; each time they grow to consume surrounding works. Here is an artist whose sense of history seems to be choking her, and threatens to swallow us.

Outside, rain lashes the pool at the heart of the Albert Dock, out towards the Mersey and the Atlantic beyond. This exhibition is a brave, intelligent – and at its best – transformative encounter with that melancholy ocean and its voyagers.

Rating: 4/5 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 27 2010

Why Britain's best artists leave

How can London be the capital of global art when our celebrity culture makes it such a miserable place for artists to live and work?

Chris Ofili, whose retrospective has just opened at Tate Britain, is just one of the British artists who have chosen to live abroad to get away from the madness of art's celebrity culture – including such serious figures as Tacita Dean and Steve McQueen.

So here's a paradox. Constantly, the media tell us that London is this century's Manhattan or Paris, that Britain is the world's leading art capital. Yet I believe that in Manhattan in the 1960s you would actually have found artists living and working – and if Picasso had fled back to Barcelona, the Musée Picasso wouldn't have been in Paris. Art capitals are traditionally places where artists thrive. But what kind of artist really thrives on our brand of instant celebrity?

As a critic, you forget what celebrity means. It's seeing people coo over someone who seems very ordinary to me, such as Grayson Perry – someone I've sometimes been rude about, sometimes praised, but certainly never mistaken for the kind of artist I, personally, would go weak at the knees to meet.

Celebrity is such a small thing compared with real fame. For me, a famous artist is one whose works have secured them a true place in art history, whose talent is mysterious and personality elusive. Jasper Johns is famous; Perry is a celebrity.

A celebrity is someone who is "like us" – just watch all those talent shows on TV – which by definition limits their genius. A celebrity, to have democratic appeal, really has to be a bit second rung, a bit ordinary. It's quite a contradiction. You have to catch the eye and yet you can't intimidate people with supreme abilities.

The purest expression of modern Britain's celebrity art culture, and its logical conclusion, was Antony Gormley's participatory artwork on the Fourth Plinth. Here was the mediocrity of the celebrity culture made monumental – everyone an artist, everyone a star, not a trace of imagination in sight.

No wonder the real artists run for their lives. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 26 2010

Chris Ofili's new paintings at Tate Britain: thumbs up or down?

No elephant dung, no glitter, no textured, collaged surfaces. It's all a bit of a shock. But do we like Ofili's new work?

I'd seen some of Chris Ofili's new work in the lavish new Rizzoli book he has helped put together. Even so, after walking past so many greatest hits and old friends in the galleries at London's Tate Britain, where his latest career survey opens to the public tomorrow, I got a jolt when I walked into the final pair of rooms, filled with his most recent work. In the first, the paintings are entirely blue – deep, midnight shades of indigo, ultramarine and bilberry. In the second, the paintings are screaming with acid colours: strident purple next to citrus orange; a tintinnabulating turquoise; egg-yolk yellow. And there is no elephant dung. And no glitter.

I have to confess I'm a bit of an Ofili fan. I've always loved the unashamedly stuff-encrusted surfaces of his paintings. So it's a bit odd to see works stripped of their jewels, so to speak.

I'm still figuring out whether I like the new work, which is steeped in the landscape and mysterious atmosphere of Trinidad, where Ofili has lived and worked since 2005. The moment I walked into the final room of the show my heart, I have to confess, sank. Then I looked at the paintings a bit more, and concluded that I kind of liked them. Then I was sure again. There's something slightly off-key about them. In fact, I just don't know. A couple of the recent works were shown in New York in 2007, and the Village Voice critic wrote:

To my mind, what makes Ofili consistently perverse – aside from his habit of turning ostensibly religious subjects into lewd jokes – is that his paintings often flirt with being outright terrible. In the wrong hands, the hyperstylized retro look he employs in these new works could, with just a few bad choices, easily turn into overweening poster art, glib parodies fit only for suburban malls.

I admit to a similar fear. On which side of the good/bad divide do the new Ofilis sit? I'm still digesting them. Adrian Searle has given his view in today's G2. What I love is that Ofili is keeping us on our toes – and is unafraid to change, and, quite possibly, fail. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 25 2010

Into the shadows

Hip, cool and wildly inventive, Chris Ofili burst onto the scene in the early 90s. Now he's ditching the dung and the glitter, and going some place darker

Chris Ofili's new show is a lesson in learning to be free. Not of the shadows cast by other artists, but of his own. Early success makes some artists grow scared of their shadows; they get so stuck with the thing they have become known for that they are paralysed, ­unable to find a way forward. Ofili, ­instead, has raced ahead. On Sunday he told me that he is letting his new work lead him where it will.

Now in his early 40s, the Trinidad-based British artist recognises that the coherent development of his work isn't something he need worry about. He is centred and confident enough to know that the work will tell the story. At the end of the 1990s, having become ­famous for using his signature elephant dung for some years, Ofili told me he was ­retreating to the studio and staying out of the limelight. By then he had won the Turner prize (in 1998; he was the first black artist to do so), and been vilified by New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who in 1999 objected to the Brooklyn Museum of Art showing his black Virgin Mary, replete with dung-balls and clippings of bums and vaginas from porn magazines. But he didn't escape attention or ­controversy: in 2005, Tate bought Ofili's 2002 work The Upper Room, a complex ­installation of 13 paintings in a shrine-like space, ­designed by the architect David Adjaye. Ofili was a Tate trustee at the time.

Ofili has always played with stereo-types of blackness and exaggerated a ribald exoticism in his work. This is ­evident from the start, in the 1993 self-portrait sculpture that greets visitors entering the show – nothing more than a small, misshapen ball of elephant dung, sprouting a few of the artist's shorn dreadlocks, and a smile of milk teeth. The exhibition takes us through the development of his paintings and drawings to the present. Much is missing: where are the balls of dung Ofili put up for sale in Brick Lane market, or the dung spliffs, or the ­"ELEPHANT SHIT" ­stickers he ­plastered London with in the early 90s? Where's the lime-green Ford Capri, the one with the elephant bellow for a horn? More pertinently, where's all the sculpture Ofili has made in recent years, the big-haired and pointy-bearded versions of the caganer, a small defecating figure who appears in Catalonian nativity scenes? The artist has left all this out, wanting to see for himself, instead, the development of his painting, beginning with the 1995 Painting With Shit On It, and ending with rooms of recent paintings with no shit at all. The shit is gone.

Babelicious nudes

There is a huge variety and range in Ofili's art: by turns joky and touching, difficult and sexy. His drawings are wonderfully erotic, lively and funny. Along the way, Ofili gets more dense and florid and complex, and then – bit by bit – jettisons the things that made him famous: the dung, the glitter, the multi-coloured, pasted-on genitalia and afro heads. Get up close to his earlier paintings – the surfaces encourage it, catching the light and writhing with life – and you lose yourself in the visual riffs, the art-nouveauish riots of plant life, the chains of dots and blobs, the beats and pulses and beads of colour. It's like listening to multi-layered ­music on headphones, and being ­delayed by all the detail.

Stepping back, it is not only your focus that shifts. On top of the fractal grids, the foliage and ripples, lumps of dung thud on the surface. Some of these are mad heads with cheeky, map-pin grins and all-seeing spooky eyes. Others are engorged cocks ­drooping under their own weight, breasts and – well – lumps of dung. This visual ­music is structured and held in check by ­pattern and order, by Ofili's larger ­motifs and images. There is his ­stupid blacktastic superhero Captain Shit; there are babelicious nudes with startled eyes and knowing smiles, and the ­beautiful and affecting No Woman, No Cry – Ofili's homage to murdered ­London teenager Stephen Lawrence.

From the beginning, Ofili looked cool and hip and outrageously novel. More than a decade on, some of his ­earlier work looks temporarily dated – or at least stalled by the Cool Britannia 90s euphoria for new British art. This will fall away with time. Late in the show, the tempo slows and the light goes out, both in the gallery and in the paintings. The walls are a sombre grey, the paintings hard to read. Their surfaces are thinly washed and layered in nuanced, dark blues. No matter how much you adjust to the gloom, they ­resist the eye. The thinner the paint, the more mysterious and impalpable the images are. Things hover in blue twilight: a dead deer strung up in a forest; soldiers riding through trees; two men making music on a wooden platform, a stage that turns out to be a scaffold. While they play, a hanged man dangles naked beside them. I hear imaginary night airs, a lament to the body hanging there. Why is he there?

Ofili has told one interviewer that this presence was provoked by the empty space he had left on the right-hand side of the painting. But it is hard not to think of some colonial outrage, its aftermath on a hot night. What one cannot see – things in the muzzy blue-green dark, a back-story the paintings might and might not tell – becomes all the more tantalising. I fill the paintings up with my own imaginings, and sit on the floor looking into the near-dark for a long time, among paintings that refuse as much as they bewitch. In Ofili's early work, we lost ourselves in stoned, close-focus detail. Now, we're lost among things unseen.

In dangerous territory

The last room bursts into light again. These paintings are hard to read, too. There is ­Lazarus being raised, his body floppy, his cock rising with him in an erection. In ­another painting, a naked woman (red hair, red labia), takes a drink from a waiter. She seems to have a halo. Elsewhere, there are figures emerging and disappearing into darkness or just trailing off – unpainted, half-seen and unaccountable. Maybe the artist can't account for them either.

In a painting called The Healer, a squatting figure gorges or vomits yellow fruit. The ­symbolism ­escapes me. These paintings are ­uncompromisingly difficult. This is dangerous territory, and some of Ofili's recent paintings ­received a mixed ­reception when they were first shown in New York last year. They feel ­transitional, in themselves and in terms of where they're headed: sometimes what first ­appears as ­mystery or open-­endedness turns out to be a lack of resolution. But when they work – and The Healer does, ­whatever it might mean – they really work. Ofili's ­confidence carries it.

Until the 90s, there were hardly any black students at British art colleges. Ofili's success showed that, if you have the intelligence, savvy and ­ambition, being an artist is a career option. Someone has to pave the way. And it was clear from the first not just how ambitious Ofili was, but how individual his take on painting was – once he'd ditched his student style of narrative figuration (funny how things make their return, and are never ­entirely lost). Rather than living up to his reputation, he is now more concerned to push his art forward. One of Ofili's earlier solo shows was called Freedom One Day: let's see where freedom leads him. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Chris Ofili: A journey from elephant art to mother nature's son

Turner prize-winning artist evolves from dealer in shock to purveyor of colourful perception, as new exhibition shows
In pictures: Chris Ofili retrospective

Think of Chris Ofili and you would be forgiven for imagining the following: elephant manure; the weeping profile of Doreen Lawrence; a black, dung-breasted Virgin Mary that enraged the mayor of New York.

But, when a major, mid-career retrospective opens on Wednesday at Tate Britain in London, visitors will see a new Chris Ofili.

His recent work may, frankly, come as a shock. There is no dung and no glitter. There are no richly-collaged, jangling surfaces. Instead, in the last room in the exhibition, unexpected swathes of colour lash down the canvases: imperial purple dissonant against citrus orange, saffron squealing against sea green.

With the exception of two paintings previously exhibited in New York, none of these eight works has ever been seen in public. They come fresh out of the artist's studio. The exhibition is the first major survey since 1998 of the often controversial 41-year-old's work. Almost a third of the 45 paintings on display have never been shown in the UK before.

All the big hits are here, including the Doreen Lawrence painting, No Woman No Cry, which was exhibited in Ofili's Turner prize exhibition in 1998. There is also a fresh chance to see the famous installation The Upper Room – 13 paintings of chalice-bearing monkeys, a reimagining of the Last Supper.

But it is in the final two rooms of the exhibition that audiences will see a different artist from the one whose last solo show in Britain was in 2002 (when the Victoria Miro gallery showed The Upper Room).

These works reflect new surroundings. Ofili has left the crowded London art scene and, since 2005, has been working in Trinidad and Tobago, living in a cottage in the hills above Port of Spain.

"I felt in some way things had closed down," the Manchester-born artist says in the Tate exhibition catalogue. "London was an exciting place to work at one point, because socially it was very progressive – a catalyst... But it got to a point where the social aspect became claustrophobic ... It also got to a point where I felt the work was really known in a public sense, that the division between public and private was like a thin membrane. And I didn't feel that gave me a greater sense of freedom."

The penultimate room sees Ofili, like Picasso, going through a "blue period". Giant canvases swirl with a dictionary-defying battery of midnight shades: ultramarine, indigo, smoke, bilberry. The colours are so deep and dark that images are hard to read. The only texture comes from the flat paint surface: sometimes velvety, sometimes reflective.

In one, Iscariot Blues, two men play musical instruments under a bridge while a hanged man dangles from a gibbet – all are enveloped in tendrils of lush foliage.

In these and the most recent paintings, the one recognisable aspect of the work is the mysterious figures that inhabit the paintings. Ofili has always created his own semi-mythological dramatis personae, whether the cartoonish, faux-superheroic character he called Captain Shit in the early work, or the simian saints of the Upper Room.

In a painting that has something of William Blake about it, a shower of egg-yolky, lemony blossoms is surrounded by an almost-black ground. On further inspection, the blackness resolves itself into a curious and possibly terrifying creature that appears to be devouring the flowers.

Ofili calls this figure The Healer, and imagines it gorging itself on the blossoms of the yellow poui tree, which flower in Trinidad with intense vividness and fall overnight. "I imagined that The Healer feasts on the poui flowers feverishly, and in the frenzy many of the flowers fall off," he has said.

The Ofili who was once painting phalluses and porn stars in a King's Cross studio is now painting en plein air – he began The Healer, he has said, outdoors during a lunar eclipse, inspired by "the forms in the clouds hovering over the hills that night".

Where once he was bringing all the clamorous life of London into his exquisite paintings as a self-conscious visual analogy of gangsta rap (aggressive lyrics, sweetly sung), he is now more likely to spend his days kayaking or observing the beauty of a Trinidadian waterfall.

In other words, Ofili is still transforming what surrounds him into paint, but these days that's the thick, fertile vegetation of the Caribbean rather than the urban jungle.

He has said of his new environment: "It has a mystical quality to it. The landscape is hilly, the vegetation is dense and you have the constant feeling that things are happening on the other side of the hill or deep in the forest."

By moving to Trinidad he has also retreated from the public gaze. In 1999, the year after he was the first black artist to win the Turner prize, his work attracted controversy when the then mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, objected to the exhibiting of The Holy Virgin Mary at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The painting was touring as part of the Sensation! exhibition of works owned by Charles Saatchi.

In 2005, the Tate bought the installation The Upper Room for £600,000, when Ofili was a trustee of the gallery. The Charity Commission published a report critical of the institution's mismanagement of the conflict of interest involved in the purchase. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Chris Ofili at Tate Britain

The most comprehensive exhibition of Chris Ofili's work to date, featuring over 40 paintings as well as pencil drawings and watercolours, is to go on display at the Tate Britain from 27 January 2010

January 16 2010

After the elephant dung

Hemmed in by success and controversy, and fearing for his art and sanity, Chris Ofili headed in a new direction … Gary Younge finds out where he's at, and why he's returning to England in good spirits

A couple of years after he won the 1998 Turner prize, Chris Ofili was in Atlantis art store in the East End of London, buying huge quantities of paint and holding up a queue. When he handed over his credit card, the cashier recognised his name and struck up a conversation about his work. A student standing behind Ofili then joined in with some excitement.

"Are you Chris Ofili?" he asked. "In art school, the word was you'd given up."

Ofili was delighted. "Go back and tell your friends that I've definitely given up," he replied. "Just don't tell them you saw me buying this much paint or they won't believe you."

Ofili, 41, has always struggled with success. Not achievement. For that he has worked hard and, unlike most young artists, his efforts paid off almost immediately. Before he was 30, his work had been exhibited on three continents, including solo shows in London, New York and Berlin, he was in Charles Saatchi's Young British Artists collection and he had won the Turner prize. In the intervening decade, he's had the British Pavilion at the 50th Venice Biennale, the Blue Rider, Devil's Pie and Upper Room exhibitions – to name but a few. At the end of this month, Tate Britain will put on a mid-career retrospective, exhibiting a selection of his work up to the present.

But it is the renown that comes with this success Ofili has found troublesome. "I'm aware that success can overwhelm you," he says. "The perception of you can be elevated to such a status that it's not you any more. But you start playing you. You have to leave the real you at home because the fake Chris Ofili has been invited to dinner. I was being invited to all kinds of functions and meeting all kinds of interesting people. But I went to very, very few because it was hard to be the person they thought I was. People were asking me to say things. I'm a bit more irresponsible than that. Sometimes I prefer not to have read the latest book but to have been really following Man Utd. Not that that can't fit. But it made me feel uncomfortable that it might not. There was a point in time where the thought of people even talking about me made me anxious. Physically."

That point reached its apogee in 1999 when his work gained global attention after New York mayor Rudy Giuliani took umbrage at Ofili's Holy Virgin Mary painting hanging in Brooklyn Museum of Art. The painting depicted Mary as a black woman with an exposed breast made from elephant dung and surrounded by cutouts of female genitalia from pornographic magazines which looked from afar like small butterflies. The mayor threatened to withdraw funding for the museum, and lost a lawsuit in which he tried to censor its choice of artists. When a federal court ruled that this would violate freedom of speech, Giuliani responded, "There's nothing in the First Amendment that supports horrible and disgusting projects!"

Thrust, unexpectedly, into the glare of global media, Ofili decided to say nothing. "I just thought, what's the point of throwing anything out there at all? I've already done the painting and they're going to work that to mincemeat. Then, as time passed, I thought it would be more interesting to be in the audience than on the stage. I was actually scared as well. It was this American rage. I was brought up in Britain, I don't know that level of rage. So it was easier and perhaps more interesting not to say anything. I'm still glad I didn't."

The moment proved pivotal in terms of how he would navigate the relationship between his work, his renown and his life. "That's when I started to feel hemmed in," he says. "That's when I thought it's time to turn the music off, turn the lights on and say, 'Party's over. Go tell the rest of your crew.'"

Neither stoic, ascetic nor reclusive, Ofili became driven by a dual desire to protect his art and his sanity. You get the impression he needs to be forgotten if only to produce memorable work. There would be relatively long fallow periods where he would not do solo exhibitions for several years. "The studio is a laboratory, not a factory," he says. "An exhibition is the result of your experiments, but the process is never-ending. So an exhibition is not a conclusion."

When he does exhibit, his work is generally greeted with qualified critical appreciation that falls just short of full-scale acclaim. "Amid intense critical scrutiny and the distorting glare of the market, Ofili is doing something quite bold: he's giving up his formulas and looking for new forms," wrote New York Magazine. "He wants you to see the arc of a career... not just chart-toppers."

Why wouldn't he just stick with the chart-toppers, develop the styles and themes he knows work and win awards? "I'm not after a type of refinement of your life with a view to writing your own obituary," he explains, "summing up as early as possible so people get it and they can just slap you on the back every time they see you. I just want to see what I can get out of this whole thing."

At times it seemed like the main thing standing in the way was the trappings of success. "People kept asking me to do things," he recalls, "but there's more than one way of achieving, and you have to use your own measuring tape."

He was invited to be a member of the prestigious Royal Academy, but couldn't fathom any way in which it would be beneficial for him or his work. "Does it come with a parking space outside the Royal Academy?" he asked. "Because, if not, I can't see anything in it for me."

"It's a great honour and you'd be the first black RA," his suitor explained.

"I'll probably be the last one, too, once you get to know me," he said.

Having made his name and some controversy with elephant dung, Ofili thought it was time to get his shit together. "I felt I'd achieved quite a lot in London in a short space of time. That's a really good thing. But in doing that, I had a sense I could see where it was all going. I couldn't see that many surprises on the horizon. There was a familiarity with myself that I didn't really welcome. It was all getting a bit obvious. I wanted to feel that my life was being enriched because I was achieving, but I didn't feel that I could do it in London. "

We are talking on the veranda outside his studio, halfway up Lady Chancellor Hill in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, where he moved in 2005. As dusk falls over the nearby mountains, joggers and walkers from the huge Savannah park climb the hill, signalling not a parade of new year's resolutions but the approach of carnival season. It's not difficult to see why someone would want to live in Trinidad. But it's not immediately obvious why Ofili in particular would want to live there, either. Born and raised in Manchester, Ofili's parents are from Nigeria; his partner's family are from Egypt. He listens to the BBC World Service, watches Premier League games and gets the international edition of the Guardian.

So why Trinidad? The fact that neither he nor his partner had connections to the country was a bonus, because it made it neutral ground. He'd been invited there several years ago and had enjoyed it. "It instantly struck me as a place where I felt different, in a really good way, that I didn't fear. There weren't any signs telling me which way to go. It felt very free and open, a place where you had to discover things."

While eating dinner with his family (he has a three-year-old daughter and a newborn son), we heard the first sounds of carnival, as tunes from a steel pan band rolled down the Cascade side of Hololo mountain. Once the children were in bed, we drove over to see 10 men rehearsing a single refrain into the night. "I feel me here," Ofili said later. "I wonder if that's because the place is so unusual to me that I can become myself. I really ask very little of this place."

If he came in search of anonymity, he got it. When I told the immigration officer who I was coming to interview, I had to say the name three times, and even then she wrote "Chris Refifi".

Like his art, Ofili is an intriguing work in progress. With a beard and a few flecks of grey in his hair, he looks like a young, lean Danny Glover. His speech is measured, his voice soft with a Mancunian lilt. There is little in his upbringing to suggest the life he lives now was even possible, let alone likely. Raised in a working-class family in Manchester, he had little interest in art as a child and never went to galleries. By the time he was 20, he had been abroad only once, to the south of France by coach on a school trip he paid for with his paper round money. He left school wanting to be a furniture designer, only to learn, much to his annoyance, that he had to do a foundation course. "I took it on thinking I just needed to get a certificate. I'd never met artists before," he says. "I had no idea what that meant – to be an artist."

Then came Chelsea art school. "I don't think I met anyone posh until I went to London. I kept thinking, 'This person actually lives in Chelsea, on the Kings Road, and that's their car.' It really opened up my world." Throughout, his mother was concerned only with the basics. "All my mother would say is, 'Are you eating?' Not, 'Why are you studying art?' just, 'How are you going to eat?' "

He emerged on to the national scene with the help of two propitious tailwinds, thanks to the desire to rebrand Britain as cool and modern following New Labour's election in 1997. The first was artistic. Throughout the late 90s, the arts became far more popular and some young artists, such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, started to act like rock stars, suggesting the dawning of a rowdy, vibrant new creative generation.

The second was racial. The publication in 1999 of the Macpherson report into the death of Stephen Lawrence helped pave the way for a brief moment when racial and ethnic difference was openly celebrated (before 9/11 and the onset of moral panic). Ofili won the Turner prize with No Woman, No Cry, a tribute to Doreen Lawrence with a portrait of her late son Stephen in each tear. "I thought it might say something," he says. "Not change anything, but maybe just say something." The same year, Goodness Gracious Me, an Asian comedy show, had its TV debut. The year after that Steve McQueen won the Turner prize. The year after that came Zadie Smith's White Teeth.

The notion that acknowledging race and racism would limit his appeal never occurred to Ofili. "I've always set out to embrace all that I am," he says. "Growing up in Britain at the time, when a major aspect of who I am was seen as negative, there was no way I was going to exclude that part of myself. Because then they've won. Or you've lost."

Nonetheless, he steered clear of the polemical. "A lot of black art that came before was set up to critique the system. I thought that was boring. Basically, you would have to be right all the time. And I was not interested in being right all the time. I wanted to be sincere and outrageous and friendly and rude and experimental and conventional. I just wanted to try to be who I am."

It's not difficult to see why Ofili would find disorienting his rapid elevation to feted artist. But he is heading back to England in good spirits, not obviously anxious at the prospect of reimmersing himself into the full glare of the art world. "I don't know if I'll feel the same as I did before... if I'll feel a little bit more comfortable in the role-play or if I'll just be myself. I'm very curious to see."

The exhibition will contain between six and eight paintings that have never been seen, and about a third that have not been displayed in Britain. He is characteristically introspective about the retrospective. "I don't know what the work is going to look like. Some of it could look a little dated." Does he care? He is at such pains to shield himself from what people think, you wonder at times who the paintings are for. "I'm not above it," he says. "I really do care that people are interested in it. I'd like for people to find them interesting and engaging. It would be amazing if lots of people I really respected said, 'These are great pictures.' But then I have to paint it out. I can't care all the time. I'm really driven more by trying to make paintings and the life I might lead in order to do that. The places I might go, the things I might see. That's really exciting."

We are sitting at Las Cuevas on Trinidad's northern coast. "It's like those waves," Ofili says, pointing out to the Caribbean Sea. "It doesn't last for ever. And it shouldn't. It makes its way and then moves a bit of sand and it's gone. That's it. So let's not get too excited. Let's get back out there and find another wave." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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