Arts: A sheer excess of stuff

Chris Ofili's work is famous for its elephant dung. But is there anything more to it?
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Chris Ofili's paintings are the talk of the town - and that old- style phrase seems apt, because, for once, here's an art buzz which isn't based on an art row. Alright, there's the elephant shit, a gimmick if you like, but I don't believe anyone's seriously outraged. After all, remembering that legendary episode of Blue Peter, it's not the first time the stuff has made its mark on British culture, and the reaction back then was simple hilarity. A herbivore's ordure can never be very offensive.

True, Ofili's paintings have a lot more than dung hanging on them. There are bets on the Turner Prize, for one thing, for which the artist is probably the most honest favourite there's been for several years. There's the future of painting, too, always on the look out for a plausible new herald. And there are issues, principally about race and cultural identity, which Ofili's painting has certainly got something to do with. At any rate, at 29, he is the most famous black British painter there's ever been (though admittedly, there's more artistic fame circulating generally in this country now than ever before). But none of this, happily, quite amounts to a controversy. The only fuss can be about whether it's worth all the talk.

There are about 20 paintings from the past five years on show at the Serpentine Gallery. I think that, for a new viewer, after registering the dung balls stuck to the canvas surfaces and propping up the pictures against the walls, and realising that they are well-coated in resin and so don't smell at all, the first impression would likely be of crashing bad taste. The earlier pictures here are pure pattern. The later ones are more figurative and image-based. But what you see most prominently is a gaudy-swirly-crafty-ethnic-psychedelic array. But by any standards, it really doesn't look much like fine art.

Of course, to break decorum as such isn't so interesting. But to break decorum in so many ways at once. I mean, Ofili is not the first modern painter to put glitter or luminous paint on canvas. He's not the first to use dots or dodgy colour-schemes. He's clearly not the first to include bits of collage or to stress an all-over decorative surface. And as for one of his most distinctive tricks - putting down a layer of transparent resin over the painted canvas and then painting on top of that, so that the painting exists on visibly separate levels - I can't immediately think of a precedent, but if it were a novelty, it wouldn't matter much in itself.

These pictures are plethoric. They first win over the eye by force of accumulation and proliferation and hyperactive energy. Layer is superimposed on layer (the dot technique itself produces transparency); image overlaps image; pattern lurks within pattern. The pictures break down, in a quasi- fractal way, into ever-smaller elements. Looking at them is like sitting out on a summer day and noticing a couple of ants, and then noticing ants absolutely everywhere. They never become objects of contemplation, but they do become very attention-addictive.

They're obviously quite nuts, too. Ofili offers an aesthetic of obsessional adornment, as in a homemade shrine to Elvis or Di, or a fan's bedroom wall, where sticking stuff on and filling in endlessly elaborate detail is a way of adding worth to the image and making it precious; paying homage. The balls of elephant dung, glazed, decorated with coloured map-pins and attached to the picture surface, are the last gratuitous touch to this gratuitous encrustation. The balls which prop the canvasses off the floor serve as pedestals for the icon. The weight and intensity of the adornment teeters on the brink of grandeur.

And they gradually become very funny. Partly this is through sheer overload and partly it's through the continual play between image and decoration, in which each is made to look odd. In She, for instance, the main image of a woman's head is overwhelmed and exploded by the swirling patterns emanating under and around it, but tries hard to hold its ground. Meanwhile, these swirls themselves are made up of small-to-tiny collaged heads, each topped with an exaggerated, painted-on Afro, so that they become heads wildly flung about by formal design, or abstract blobs animated with a human face.

This kind of thing happens all the time. In Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars, the figure of the comic-strip hero-cum- soul sex-god is surrounded and superimposed by literal, black, wonky pentacles, each bearing a pair of collaged eyes and looking like slightly mad, flying starfish. This shape-face game is done most elegantly in Trump, whose main motif is a large ace of spades (as in: black as the...), encircled by a host of smaller spades, each beating a collaged face which has been painted out in black apart from the eyes and mouth, which just peep out of the emblem. All these faces are black faces; a sort of pun on black skin/black paint is always around in these pictures.

Saying what, though? What of the issues? The paintings are also filled with black iconography and allusions: the faces and names of stars and heroes; the imagery of racial stereotyping; references to blaxploitation films and rap misogyny. And the formal elements themselves are rich in mainly African resonance: the dots from African cave paintings; the patterns from African textiles; and the dung (originally) from African elephants. Granted, the Serpentine seems to have made a rather sanitised selection. Some of Ofili's ruder works (such as Seven Bitches Tossing their Pussies before the Divine Dung, or The Holy Virgin Mary, which caused some trouble when shown in Sensation) have been omitted. But there's enough here for any viewer - black or white, I think - to wonder what the game is, exactly.

The answer seems to be just that: a game; a setting in play. All the motifs and themes and materials and devices get mixed up and rolled together, sending off sparks but with no prospect of resolution, as if to say: the world is confusion, full of good stuff and bad stuff and stuff it's hard to know what to think about, and it must all be acknowledged and mocked and affirmed and embraced without distinction. It's an exhilarating position - and it's exhilarating to see art that seems designed to accommodate almost any subject-matter the artist might care to put in it. It does rather imply the triumph of zest over judgement, and of talking points over serious statements. But just at the moment, this is a good path for painting to take.

Chris Ofili, Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London W2, 0171- 402 6075. Daily to 1 Nov; free