BY Jennifer Higgie in Reviews | 09 SEP 98
Featured in
Issue 42

Chris Ofili

BY Jennifer Higgie in Reviews | 09 SEP 98

Chris Ofili makes paintings that are unsettling, beautiful, psychedelic and jam-packed - with ideas, objects, faces, references and rhythms. Infinite dots cover their surfaces, sparkling and fading like drops of sweat, stars, scars, cells and stains, emphasising, deflecting and animating the space between myriad lines. Resin and paint, beads, glitter and elephant shit jostle for attention like the detritus of an annihilated circus. He re-animates an array of black stereotypes - little grinning trumps and hothouse flowers, patterns, pimps, hookers, saints and comic-book heroes - with insurgent affection. Circles curl into other circles and lines meander around corners, occasionally transforming into the name of a famous black musician, boxer, artist or movie star. Ofili treats paint as if it were sound - sampling, scratching and rapping ideas until the pictures have to stop, clogged and layered with riddles, homages and caricatures played against a heightened sensuality.

Relentless and restless repetition reinvents his by now well-known trademark - elephant shit - into a scatological signifier of ironic difference, a glittering choker for a teardrop head, a spaceshit comet, a fat dot, a painting support. Its ubiquitous presence is as complicated as the patterns that often adorn its resined surface, mocking and mimicking the fictions of otherness and origins as it lays bare every layer of shit that ever held a picture up - all the little shit, big shit, glamorous shit, sarcastic shit, symbolic shit, even formally placed and balanced shit.

His 'Captain Shit' series, for example, wreaks havoc with any expectations you might have nursed about how African burlesque, American pop culture and a plethora of formalist beauty might get along. Virile and silly, a cartoon, a saviour and a joke, Captain Shit, a black super-hero surrounded by a black cosmology, stands hands on hips, semi-transparent, funky and loaded. Ofili modelled his character on Luke Cage, one of the first African-American heroes to appear in Marvel Comics and perhaps the only super-hero to possess not super-powers but an inexhaustible capacity for rage. In The Adoration of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars (1998) white hands reach up to touch him, but he ignores them, his chest hair underlining his slightly cross-eyed gaze with shapes that float like quotation marks, his belt buckle a glowing elephant turd beaded in red and black with the initials 'CS'. Black eyes peer out from magazine cut-outs glued to the surface of the canvas. Everything in the painting is see-through - Captain Shit himself reveals the stars that shine darkly behind his body, the entreating hands reveal the Captain's body, and the paint itself - an exquisite, tactile veneer - reveals the artist's meticulous understanding and manipulation of his material. Even the furtive cut-out eyes that surround him look as if they're observing the world through the filter of a mask. But if that apotheosis of transience - the cartoon - is inverted and invested with an iconic quality, it is never at the expense of the elements that make the best and most subversive cartoons great - immediacy and humour.

Ofili's exploration of dissimilarity and disjunction - the tension between subject matter and medium - lends his paintings an ambiguous power. If his subjects initially appear to be self-consciously trashy, his obsessive, reverent handling of paint dignifies them. Destabilising a few endemic assumptions about other cultures held dear by Western culture is perhaps his most obvious strategy in his appropriation of racist images, but it's a strategy that is, thankfully, never self-righteous nor didactic. Although the surfaces of his paintings look homogenous, the dots create a thousand tiny metaphorical differences within each seemingly unified surface. They confer a complicated provenance upon what at first appear to be sarcastic re-workings of a white version of blackness.

As Lisa Corrin observes in the exhibition's excellent accompanying (glow-in-the-dark) catalogue: 'The contemporary reality in which Ofili operates means that elephant dung comes from the London zoo, African beads are made in Taiwan: the African textiles evoked by his surfaces are manufactured in the Netherlands; and, given the discoveries of modern archaeology, dotted cave painting references could signify Palaeolithic, Islamic, Aboriginal or Native American cultures'. Of Nigerian descent, Ofili is English, and feels no more affinity with an African aesthetic than he does with the tradition of American or European painting. His influences and interests are, in fact, complicated enough to warrant a kind of A-Z introduction to his work at the back of the catalogue (from Afros to Energy Patterns to Wu-Tang Clang). Written by Kodwo Eshun and titled Plug into Ofili, it attempts to cover 'the sound machines, sensory machines and geography machines that generate the 90s' communication landscape within which Ofili's work thrives'. It attempts to clarify Ofili's eclectic source material in a way that, like his painting, can't help but be as fun to experience as it is enlightening to decipher.

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.