Turner Prize winner puts painting back in the frame

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The Independent Online
CHRIS OFILI, who was awarded the 1998 Turner Prize last night, has already achieved a certain fame - first and foremost for his use of elephants' faeces. But he is also a painter, and, in the long run, that may be bigger news.

Ofili is the first painter to win the Turner Prize since 1985. Back then, the art scene was very different. The rise of the Young British Artists had not begun. But throughout the 1990s, the YBA phenomenon has dominated the prize.

And although the occasional painter has been shortlisted, the winners have been mainly object-makers and video-ists. Each year, the cry of: "Where's the painting?" has become more plaintive - and actually fainter. So has it now been answered?

Not necessarily - Ofili's paintings are not what some people would call proper painting. Indeed, at first sight, you might not take them for fine art at all, but some sort of gaudy, swirly, crafty, ethnic, psychedelic decor. It is not just the dung balls - always safely sealed and odourless. There is glitter, luminous paint, Day-glo colours, bits of collage, thick layers of see-through resin and, everywhere, dots.

Now, to break one or two rules of good taste is nothing special - but breaking so many at the same time; Ofili creates surfaces of a peculiar beauty and fascination.

It is an art of excess. The pictures win over the eye by force of accumulation and proliferation and hyperactive energy. Layer is superimposed on layer, image overlaps image, pattern lurks within pattern. The pictures break down into ever smaller elements. Looking at them is like sitting out on a summer day and noticing a few ants, and then noticing ants swarming everywhere.

Ofili offers an aesthetic of obsessional adornment, as in a home-made shrine to Elvis or Di, or a fan's bedroom wall, where sticking stuff on and filling in endless detail is a way of adding worth to the image - 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 touch of gratuitous encrustation. The balls that lift the canvases off the floor serve as pedestals for the icon. The weight and elaborateness of the decoration teeters on the brink of grandeur - and farce.

Ofili's art is really too singular to be a signal, although, doubtless, painters will take encouragement from his win. He might now go on to do almost anything. But presumably, at some point, he's going to have to cut the crap.