Chris Ofili: To Take and to Give, Victoria Miro Gallery, London

 

Multiple refractions, you might say. Ofili and other poets and artists recently took part in a show of paintings, poems, set designs and costumes at the National Gallery based on a trio of great paintings by Titian.

Ofili himself worked with dancers and choreographers from the Royal Opera House to create a ballet around the theme of 'Diana and Actaeon'. Titian himself had been looking backward too, responding to the tale of Diana and her nymphs as retold by Ovid in the Metamorphoses. Ofili's paintings in that show felt a bit like Ovid transposed to the Caribbean with a touch of subtle mediation by Titian.

The challenge of the theme, together with the stimulation of witnessing and drawing dancers responding physically to the drama of the myth, was such that Ofili has not stopped working ever since.

Here we can see drawings in pencil and charcoal, paintings in acrylic and pastel, and other evidence of feverish activity in progress. There are designs for the costumes of individual characters, and poses caught on the wing. In fact, everything feels on-the-wing about this show.

In part, it is a testing of ideas, glimpses into Ofili's own creative processes. How would he choose to visualise the different elements of this death-dealing drama on stage?

There are multiple versions of the head of the dog which ripped Actaeon apart for presuming to ogle the chaste huntress Diana in all her nakedness. Some are mask-like, others surprisingly benign and quirkily humorous.

There are fluid drawings of dancers taking flight, bearing the head of the hound aloft. We are accustomed to admiring Ofili most of all for the subtle way in which he blends rich, dark colours.

Form seems to emerge from tone. There is colour here, but what predominates is the speed and the energy of line. This is line taking itself out for a walk goodness knows where.

Ofili's line does not have the sureness and authority of Picasso – occasionally, the drawing is a bit hit and miss – but it never lacks for inventiveness or vigour.

The largest painting in the show, the largest by him I have even seen, seems to leave Ovid behind entirely. 'To Take and to Give' is a strew of languorous female bodies, merging with and emerging from a mountain whose shapeliness they seem to have helped create. Natural fecundity writ large.  

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