(Tomkins’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 10/6.)
Chris Ofili paints in a dilapidated white cottage on Lady Chancellor Road, about ten minutes from downtown Port of Spain, in Trinidad. It has three rooms, each large enough to accommodate one or two of the strange, dreamlike paintings he is working on. Aside from taking out the kitchen, Ofili has done nothing to the cottage. Rickety windows on one side are propped open with sticks. No air-conditioner, no screens, no studio assistant. The house clings to a steep hillside, the floor slants downhill, and the floorboards sag and groan. Most of the recent paintings in Ofili’s first major New York retrospective, which opens at the New Museum on October 29th, were done in these rooms.
“I think I just resolved something about this one,” he said, somewhat conspiratorially. It was a morning in June, and we were looking at a dark nine-foot-tall vertical painting called “Lime Bar,” which he had been working on since April. A black man in a frilled white semi-transparent shirt stands behind a bar squeezing limes, and in the foreground a couple in shadow, a man and a woman, sit close together drinking. “When I leave the studio at night, I take a photo of the picture I’m working on,” Ofili continued. “This morning when I woke up, I looked at the photo and thought, I’ll change his shirt.” The barman’s shirt had originally been white, but Ofili had painted it black, to make the figure recede. “It looked ghastly,” he said. “So this morning I decided to make the shirt white again, but the black was still wet, and the paint wasn’t going on the way I wanted. I started to blot it with this”—he picked up an old green T-shirt to demonstrate—“and it left this amazing texture. I got lucky. Until that moment it was all panic and despair, because I thought I was going to lose it.”