Ofili's Dead Monkey - Sex and Drugs is the final canvas in a trio of paintings called Monkey Magic. The painting encompasses many of the personal and artistic challenges the artist was facing at this pivotal point in his career. Superbly representing Ofili's unique ability to mix racial, religious and cultural themes to produce works of amazing beauty, it became one of his favorite works. 'It's a kind of moralistic short series. There's one called Dead Monkey, where the monkey's died and there's blood flowing out of the cup and blood flowing out of his mouth, and the sex, money and drugs lying on the ground. But he's got a sly smile on his face, so he kind of died happy' (C. Ofili, "Paradise Reclaimed," The Guardian, June 15, 2002).
This monumental canvas, one of the largest he has produced to date, is a highly intricate blend of mystical, ghost-like images layered over psychotropic arcs of brightly colored disks, glitter and polyester resin and images composed entirely of tiny dots of paint. Ofili's complex method of building up layers of clear resin gives the work a sense of depth and allows the eye to penetrate into the very heart of work. It also liberates each of the elements and allows them to float and dance across the surface of the painting. The drug references and multi-layered construction are similar to the work produced by his American counterpart, Fred Tomaselli.
Dead Monkey - Sex and Drugs is the direct pre-cursor of Ofili's epic The Upper Room installation at Tate Britain in London. Inspired by the monkey motif used in the present lot he felt it had more to offer him in artistic terms and began to make some monochrome paintings in red, blue and black. Ofili continued to produce these canvases in various colors until he had twelve. He then produced a thirteenth, larger golden version which was installed at the head of the group. Similarities to the Last Supper are clear in both the iconography of each canvas - the holding up of the chalice in offering of the Holy Communion - but also in the manner in which the paintings were installed, six pairs of work facing each other as if sitting at a long table.
Ofili's work is characterized by a number of motifs that appear regularly and represent many of the artist's social concerns and experiences. The monkey is one of the most important of these and appears in his most important works. The image used for this particular work is based on Andy Warhol's golden collaged Monkey from the artist's days as an illustrator in the early 1950s. With the monkey leitmotif, Ofili reaches back to the are historical tradition of using monkeys to represent the evils of lust and sin. Their close evolutionary links to humans allows them to portray the base desires of which humans will never be free, they can indulge these urges without any of the consequences humans would experience in their highly regimented and moralistic society.
Another important motif Ofili included in Dead Monkey is the use of dried elephant dung, which he first began using after a study trip to Zimbabwe in 1992. He was particularly fascinated by how much information the local trackers could determine about the animals simply by looking at what they'd left behind. Attracted by this multi-faceted nature, he took some dried elephant and cow dung and stuck it onto a painting to see what aesthetic effects it produced. He was pleased with the result and continued to refine his use of this material throughout the next few years.
The 1992 trip to Africa also provided the inspiration for another aspect of Dead Monkey, Ofili's technique of depicting an image using hundreds of thousands of small, pearlescent painted dots. During his Zimbabwe trip he paid a visit to see the prehistoric San cave paintings in the Matobo Hills. He noticed that in addition to the representational paintings of figures and animals the walls were marked by areas covered with dots. The explanation he was given was that it was believed to have been done by someone who did not go out on the hunt but stayed behind and worked in the cave, perhaps in some sort of meditative state. In Dead Monkey he uses this technique to bring a tangible quality to the flat surface of the resin and thereby adding to the richness of the image as a whole.
This painting was produced partly as a response to a particularly challenging time in Ofili's career. In 1998 he was awarded Britain's prestigious Turner Prize for contemporary art. The announcement was greeted by much media debate in Britain's notoriously harsh tabloid press about the value of his art, given its distinctive mix of animal dung, religious iconography and questions of black identity at a particularly difficult time for race relations in the U.K. But even these events did not prepare Ofili for the storm of controversy that would surround the opening of the notorious Sensation exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999. The inclusion of the artist's The Holy Virgin Mary became the subject of a vitriolic public debate and the painting so infuriated the city's Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, he tried to remove public funding from the museum until the director 'came to his senses' (R. Giuliani quoted by J Nesbitt, 'Beginnings', Chris Ofili, exh. cat., London, 2010, p. 17). After these events Ofili felt the need to withdraw from public scrutiny and moved out of his studio and retreated to his home in attempt to refocus his artistic voice, with the Monkey Magic series being the first major work completed during this time.
No stranger to controversy, his works are often overshadowed by the public reaction to his use of dung and erotic imagery. Despite that Ofili's power as an artist rests in his power as a painter. In an age where contemporary art is dominated by conceptualism and video, Dead Monkey - Sex and Drugs revels in his sheer delight in creating images by putting paint on canvas. His paintings are a Baroque-like celebration of texture and color, whose richness is matched only by the intricacy of their execution. As Ofili has said of his pictures, 'I try to make [the painting] more and more beautiful, to decorate it and dress it up so that it is so irresistible, you just want to be in front of it' (Ofili, quoted in L. Macritchie, ''Ofili's Glittering Icons - Work of Chris Ofili at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, New York", Art in America, January 2000).