Chris Ofili, Tate Britain, London

4.00

Dazzled by an intense beauty

Chris Ofili has his famous signature, of course: the ball of African elephant dung. But don't let that distract you from his achievement. The paintings in his retrospective at Tate Britain are among the most marvellous of the last 20 years. It's a public art, an art of luminous colour, an art of wild imagination. If that sounds a peculiar combination, then look at it this way: William Blake's influence on modern art has taken many forms, but none so strange or true.

Grounding it all there is the Ofili format – the very original means he devised for conveying pictorial meaning. The canvas isn't hung on the wall, but stood up against it, propped on two balls of elephant dung. The painting's title is often written on them in map pins. More pieces of dung are attached to the canvas. And the picture's surface is further adorned and decorated with dots, glitter, layers of resin, pieces of collage, which are arranged in radiant and symmetrical designs.

Opulent, dense and dazzling, it's a contemporary version of a gilded altar-piece. It makes painting into an impersonal medium. It is a kind of amber in which a subject is held suspended – and Ofili's paintings can accommodate almost any theme, however socially sensitive or filthy-minded.

Ofili is black. His material is black. Dung is made into a general symbol for blackness. The dots are inspired by Zimbabwean cave paintings. Rap and blaxploitation films are invoked, but recast into a new imaginary world. There's the extraordinary vision of Seven Bitches Tossing their Pussies Before the Divine Dung. There's the cartoon super-hero, Captain Shit.

Race and sex stereotypes are held up – for glorification or derision or what? Does the image revel in black masculinity, say, or mock it, or mock white fear of it? Ofili toys with attitudes in ways that are all-round ironic and provocative, and which conclude in sheer explosion: moral anarchy matching the visual energy.

His language is also capable of grief, just about. No Woman, No Cry, a severe, weeping female profile, pays homage to Stephen Lawrence's mother. And then there's religion. The Holy Virgin Mary, embellished with obscene collage, is certainly blasphemous, which is fine – but the blasphemy seems pointless.

The climax of work in this format is the installation The Upper Room. A darkened chamber holds 13 lit paintings. Each has an image of a monkey, holding a cup. It's a union of a chimps tea party and The Last Supper. Each one is allotted a colour, named on its dung-props in Spanish and glowing from its surface. This work holds a mysterious mixture of absurdity and reverence. It has no creed, but performs an act of adoration. It worships colours.

More affirmations followed. Ofili is rather unusual among contemporary artists in celebrating love, happiness and heterosexuality. A series of love scenes, painted in the colours of Marcus Garvey black nationalism (red, green and black) and with a beguilingly complex patterning, are probably his most intensely beautiful works.

But at some point Ofili was going to have to cut the crap. In the last five years all his devices have been shed: the adornments, patterns, dung attachments and props. The last two rooms display pure paintings, paint on canvases, hung on the wall. It becomes clear that what gave Ofili's art such power was also a way of playing safe. With all those devices, nothing could go seriously wrong. These new paintings are exposed things.

The first group protect themselves in another way, with darkness. They're painted in the narrowest range of deepest blues. The subject is often barely discernible, though when it is, a startling imagination is again revealed – see, if you can, Iscariot Blues. But in the final room, with its bright, loopy, expressive figuration, I don't know if I'd recognise these works as Ofili's if I didn't know, or that I'd stop to look. Ah well: mid-career retrospectives often end on a doubtful note. Nothing diminishes the riches that came before.

To 16 May (020 7887 8888)

Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
The party's over: Paul Higgins and Stella Gonet in 'Hope' at the Royal Court

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special

Broadcaster unveils Christmas schedule

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella

books
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Bell in the new BBC series Posh People: Inside Tatler

Review: Posh journalists just can't get enough of each other

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital
    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty