Mystic Eros: Chris Ofili at Zwirner and Frieze / by Sam Abelow

Chris Ofili’s hermetic imagination calls us to the mythic depths of psyche — a realm of vitalized eros.

Installation view, Chris Ofili, “To Take and To Give,” 2012. Acrylic on canvas, 519 × 880 cm. Presented by Victoria Miro at the Frieze Art Fair 2019. Photograph by myself.

Installation view, Chris Ofili, “To Take and To Give,” 2012. Acrylic on canvas, 519 × 880 cm. Presented by Victoria Miro at the Frieze Art Fair 2019. Photograph by myself.

Chris Ofili, “Dangerous Liasons,” at David Zwirner, 34 E 69, on view through June 15

Chris Ofili, “To Take and To Give" and “Poolside Magic” works at Victoria Miro’s booth at Frieze, on view May 2 - 5.

An ocean of vitality pulses through all life. In the human psyche, access to this power begins in a limited way, which is very hot, as it is connected to the sexual instinct. Always, in the imagination, this dynamic force has universally been associated with the feminine (Ishtar-Aphrodite). When cultivated, it flows as a fountain, the cooling reservoirs of which run deep, extending out into the world and back into self, in a vitalized flow: this is mystic eros. [1]

A monumental painting by Chris Ofili opens the Frieze fair with an image of this multidimensional eros, titled “To Take and to Give.” The erotic feminine — a group of Aphrodites (so ubiquitous across painting history) — is portrayed as part of an ascending mountain, which is also a fountain that flows back down into the cup of a masculine figure (archetypally, the ego, or incarnated self).

But, us Americans, we are far from understanding the vitality of Aphrodite and the mystic value of eros. At the Frieze, we make a mall out of art; we turn art into commodity, into the collectable. Art fairs flatten the artistic vision into a department store. And thus, eros is lost; we forget that life (not to mention “art”) is about experience; we think life is about acquisition!

However, the symbolic eros, a deeply-felt Aphrodite wishes to say: We don’t acquire life, we live it!

I must backtrack, away from the Frieze here, as Ofili’s work primarily points us inwards, towards the personal, introverted experience of eros.

II. “Dangerous Liaison”: Recent Watercolors by Chris Ofili

Two days earlier, Kendra — a graduate student in psychology — and I walked through Central Park, to get towards the Zwirner Gallery on East 69th.

“From the very first psychoanalysis sessions, it was seen that eros immediately entered into the first therapeutic relationships.” [2]

Kendra smiled.

“This is because the very capacity for interest — which is a form of appreciation and excitement — is rooted in sexual drives,” I said. “Recently, I discovered that, in Spanish, the word for excitement — ‘excitado’ — translates to sexual arousal.

“Same for the French, ‘excité’.” Kendra continued, “This excitement, arousal, that you’re connecting to eros — it has to do with the way eros pushes consciousness to new places; could it be akin to psychotic states which blur reality and unreality.”

“You’re talking about the way in which eros can become love for ideas, and extend into symbolic realms,” I said. “Remember, the biblical references speak of ‘knowing’ (Hebrew: דעת) someone as synonymous with ‘to sleep with.’”

We came around a winding path near a bridge, which opened up again, making Fifth Ave. visible.

I continued, “The psychotic is the personality which drowns in the ocean — the mystic swims. Right? Well, so does the artist and psychologist. They understand the way in which eros is the vehicle of the unconscious. Engaging with this without being lost, as the psychotic, is the dangerous work” [3]

Detail, Chris Ofili, “Calypso (Green),” 2019. Oil, gold leaf and graphite on linen. 78 7/8 x 112 1/14 inches.

Detail, Chris Ofili, “Calypso (Green),” 2019. Oil, gold leaf and graphite on linen. 78 7/8 x 112 1/14 inches.

i. Calypso and Odysseus

Entering into a stripped down, pristine antique townhouse, and up a flight of spiral stairs, amongst the dapper Upper East Side milieu, I came upon Ofili’s large canvas of a green mermaid figure, mysterious, intoxicatingly swimming in bejeweled waters of the deep psyche.

I gasped. [4]

These understated, yet decorative and ornate paintings were punctuations to a bounty of textbook-sized watercolors. The first gallery portrayed a dozen variations on a “Calypso” composition, with illustrative use of rich color and winding line.

Details from “Calypso” variations by Chris Ofili

Detail, Chris Ofili, “Calypso 15”, 2019. Watercolor, oil pastel, gold leaf and charcoal on paper, 15 1/2 x 10 1/4 inches. Photographed by myself at the David Zwirner gallery.

Two birds, rendered in gold leaf, floated above the heads of the two nebulous lovers, time after time, in some variation of swimming embrace and love-making song.

This is the theme of a “dalliance” — sure — Odysseus’s rendezvous with a nymph before continuing his hero’s journey. But, this is only where Ofili’s imagination begins its spontaneous theatre.

His style decolonizes [5] the myth from its Eurocentric paintings of yesteryear. They become something else in him; the myth is alive in his psyche, today. And, it’s alive when we appreciate it, too: the nymph and hero in the ecstasy of love — the mystic swimming in the love of the soul.

Let us assume that the artist has a public role. The dalliance, seen through symbolic eros, opposes a Western heroic mindset of productivity, where we put work over life. Here, the mystic eros presents the value appreciating life — to know life, is to love it.

Privately though we see: for the artist to meditate on this eros, he practices filling his psyche more fully with the fiery waters.

ii. Ofili’s Mystic Eros

Should I even say these things? Are they too out-there?

But, Kendra seems to understand these explorations of eros. And when I explained to my psychoanalyst about this aesthetic life and its connection to the realized symbolic eros, he only laughed like a crazy monk and said, “You get this, now.”

And, it seemed that one of the top figurative painters in the world has been deeply aware of this notion. Evident in the watercolors is the way in which, for Ofili, the heat of eros is not any kind of compulsion, but rather a meditative absorption into a transcendence deeply rooted in earth. Calm — attentive, loving — even while immersed in the intoxicating eros, Ofili is ever so relaxed, painting with the delicate watercolor on paper, or thinned down oil and pigment.

Installation view, Chris Ofili, “Kiss (Calypso & Odysseus),” 2019. Oil paint, gold leaf and graphite on linen, 78 3/4 x 122 inches. Photographed by myself in the David Zwirner Gallery.

Ofili paints an amorphous love, floating as much in the mermaid’s waters, as in the cosmos. Is this coral or seagrass surrounding the couple — no, rather it is vortexes of the eros-vitality that flow and spiral within the lovers too.

The oil paintings are elegant, understated — even with the mica flakes which add a luminous sparkle throughout. The figures are outlined clearly, but still so strangely rendered that they oscillate in and out of figure and abstractions; the inner world of imagination as exciting and alluring, blends into the outer world of life and living. This, the marriage of the conscious and unconscious, the unified opposites: the kiss of mystic eros.

iii. Sensual Eros

Detail, “Dangerous Liaison, “ Chris Ofili, 2019.  Watercolor, oil pastel, gold leaf and charcoal on paper, 15 1/2 x 10 1/4 inches. Photographed by myself at the David Zwirner gallery.

Detail, “Dangerous Liaison, “ Chris Ofili, 2019. Watercolor, oil pastel, gold leaf and charcoal on paper, 15 1/2 x 10 1/4 inches. Photographed by myself at the David Zwirner gallery.

One thing though, where is all this stuff about a “Dangerous Liaison,” which is the title of the show?

A gallerist appeared, excited to convey her nuanced perception of Ofili’s thematic world and aesthetic capability.

“Ofili had started with the Magritte composition of a woman in the mirror, the title of which is the same as the show,” said the gallerist.

“Ofili’s approach,” I said “renders a symbolic eros, rather than the sensuality and sexuality of Magrette or Picasso’s woman in the mirror, for example.”

“I think so,” said the gallerist. “Well, in the Calypso paintings I see this transcendent love, but the ‘Dangerous Liaison’, are a bit more sensual.”

Mystical eros may be present in the same psyche, all at once with sexual desire — beauty and the heightened awareness as as the alluring nature of both mystical and sensual love.

Exploring the intrapsychic (symbolic) eros can lead to the overwhelming effects of the unconscious, or instinctive psyche. This is the danger of “psychosis” — madness the artist manages to overcome, as well as the mystic. In the mystic exploration of the erotic unconscious, with all it’s overwhelming beauty is a dangerous affair; this electric mixture is portrayed by Ofili, as the very word “Liason,” or “Calypso,” becomes a mantra, and the reflective mirror resonates with the scales of the mermaid.

The far more common danger associated with eros, has to do with the romantic dimension, as seen in human affairs, liaisons and marriages. Here, we get an insight into the immense power of eros, as romantic love, to heat up the psyche, causing intensification, change, and, oftentimes, hurt.

iv. Othello Etchings

Included at the Zwirner exhibition: Ofili touches on Shakespeare's “Othello” in ten very loose etchings intended for publication by Zwirner Press. These etchings, a clear reference to Matisse’s illustrations for the “Fleurs du Mal” by Baudelaire.

In the loose etchings — an homage to Matisse’s signature spontaneity — Ofili picks up on the madness of the “Othello” tragedy. All the unwarranted jealousy and obsessive thinking, trademark of those caught in the fiery floods of romantic eros.

This adds another contour to the eros mystery: what happens when it’s projected onto the lover. In the mirrors of the unconscious we see all sorts of fascination laden projection: love at first sight, infatuation, the impossible love. Not to mention: the oh so terrible, but unavoidable fact that people have and always will fall, time and time again for their next femme fatale or duan juan.

So, romantic eros is messy, but essential to human experience; and mystical eros is dangerous but possible to taste; yet Ofili portrays contact with all of this territory, as well as the subtlety of their interplay.

III. Ofili at Frieze

Back to The Frieze art fair: The gallerist representing Ofili was sparked by my enthusiastic knowledge and appreciation for the artist’s work.

Detail, from one of the Chris Ofili, “Poolside Magic” series watercolors. Photographed as installed at the Victoria Miro booth.

Behind the 100 ft vision of symbolic eros, were rare pastels that reached back to his first experiments with Greek Myth, around 2011 - 2012, when he was commissioned by the National Gallery, London to work from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.”

“What is this ‘Poolside Magic’ other than the expression of a symbolic eros which is blossoming within the artist.” I said to the gallerist.

“Right,” the gallerist said, “he has transposed the Greek myths into his own world, exploring the sensual as a symbolic experience.”

“The way he drafts the figures, they are sensual, but are not sexualized. This shows me that he understands eros as symbolic. Have you discussed this with him — is the artist aware of this intrapsychic eros?”

“I would say so; there is a mystical quality to his thinking.”

I had to know if Ofili understood this; not just because it was self-affirming. It’s because psychologists and artists must increasingly acknowledge, quite explicitly what’s going on with psyche: it’s beautiful, erotic, dangerous, infinite in its unknownness (potential), mythic, imaginative and access to all of this is the source of, not just healing, but vitality.

Eros is the waters — let the fountain flow from the ocean, let it rain and let it flood when it must. Through the body or through the mind, eros is the meaningful, excited flow of vitalized life that knows no boundaries.

Detail, Chris Ofili, “To Take and To Give,” 2012. Acrylic on canvas, 519 × 880 cm. Presented by Victoria Miro at the Frieze Art Fair 2019. Photograph by myself.


[1] Johannes Böckmann helped me to dream up this approach I call the “Phenomenological Essay.” This style proposes to impress the spontaneity of the artist, eros, soul and psyche. using description, sure, but reaching to psyche itself, rather than the intellect.

[2] This observation is a reiteration of James Hillman, who notes this about transference in “The Blue Fire” lectures.

[3] Included previously, expanding a bit diaristically: An idea that had me blasted over the past month: sexuality, art, song, psychology all reveal the potential capacity for a heightened, attentive, awakened, appreciation of self (ego and unconscious, ego and “other”) and world (environment and community). This mode of perception could be called an “aesthetic experience of life.” And it occured to me that articulating this as a cultural realization -- wich has ecological, economic and social implications --  is important. But, when speaking about the process of incorporating more of the unconscious, transforming instinct into vitality — is it too far?

Was I speaking of mystery that shouldn’t be spoken of? Carl Jung made a whole psychology out of how to do this work safely; Otto Rank had really cool, boiled down language for it; James Hillman took it that much further; and the ancient spiritual traditions of India have known all about this, even though this often led them towards asceticism and renunciation.

[4] The Greek word for breath, Pneuma (πνεῦμα), also translates to "soul". This quality of the “gasp” is the moment of a soulful, or aesthetic reaction (as explained by Hillman in the “A Blue Fire” lectures).

[5] Johannes: In my view, he strips the myth from its propagandistic undertones, that grand egos like Wagner had so asserted.

Sam: Well, I think we’re saying the same thing. In this essay, I drop so many terms — the “sexual instinct,” “Aphrodite,” “symbolic eros,” not to mention, here, “decolonize,” “Eurocentric.”

But all of this writing is intended as phenomenology? If this essay style pursues what we say it should — psyche, subjectivism — than all of the terms serve an expressiveness. This allows for sentences that become more like quips in a conversation, but it leaves more loose ends.

It is this which the academic is always formalizing and hedging against. I am an artist though, I accept loose-ends as part of life! Art reflects life and soul; so should psychological and artistic writing; the academic writing style reflects ideals of the spirit — clarity.

Flood the reader in eros, I think.