London— There are several intelligent, deftly installed shows up in the city right now, including one of Picasso’s ceramic work at the Royal Academy, the Aubrey Beardsley centenary exhibition at the Victoria & Albert, and the Hayward Gallery’s “Addressing the Century: 100 Years of Art and Fashion.” But for anyone interested in contemporary painting, Young British Artist division, there’s only one reason to get to London before November 1, and that’s Chris Ofili’s knockout, six-year survey at the Serpentine (his next New York show
isn’t until fall 1999 at Gavin Brown). Ofili is also up for this year’s Turner Prize, along with three women, Sam Taylor-Wood, Tacita Dean, and Cathy de Monchaux. Though the Tate Gallery show of the contenders is only just opening (and the winner won’t be announced
until December 1), Ofili is already the local bettor’s favorite.
And no wonder: at 30, and barely 10 years out of art school, the Manchester-born Ofili is at the top of his game and clearly reveling in it. His big, busy paintings, nearly all of them six or eight feet tall, are built up of layered patterns and imagery that mix blaxploitation sleaze and elegant psychedelia: Black Caesar meets Beardsley in an acid flashback. Coats of loosely applied resin give the work a high gloss, embedding sprays of glitter, collaged photos of black faces or body parts, and, most notoriously, plump balls of elephant dung. Though the shit has an undeniable fuck-you weight, especially in an art gallery, Ofili uses shiny lumps of it as a decorative element–crowning the belt buckle of his mack-daddy superhero Captain Shit, or sticking it with colored map pins that spell out the name of his coy porn goddess, Blossom.
“My project is not a p.c. project,” Ofili says with sly understatement in the show’s catalogue, “that’s my direct link to blaxploitation. I’m trying to make things you can laugh at.” But, referencing everything from William Blake to Zimbabwean cave painting, Ofili is no lightweight entertainer. No one has made funk this deep since James Brown.