Of all the provocative works in the Brooklyn Museum of Art's current "Sensation" exhibition, who could have guessed that Chris Ofili's charming, folksy 1996 painting, The Holy Virgin Mary, would galvanize the city and instigate yet another national forum on public funding for the arts? Ofili's seemingly innocuous work, adorned with glitter and bead-covered lumps of elephant dung, has become the emotional focus of a vociferous First Amendment debate.
Previously, Ofili's use of elephant dung seemed like a gimmick designed to give his lightweight work some heavy significance in terms of its reference to the fertile soil of Africa. Now, the elephant dung has proven to be a potent political device, effectively exposing the ignorance and hypocrisy of government officials. Almost overnight, the African-British painter has become the best known artist in America.
Luckily, "Afrobiotics," an exhibition of new works by Ofili comes along just in time to clarify the artist's position. While these five large (8-by-6 feet) visionary works are laden with symbols -- including the occasional glittery ball of elephant dung -- they can also be seen as primarily formal. Rather than being hung, the canvases are leaned against the wall, propped up on balls of decorated dung. Patterned with countless dots of pure color, the canvases touch upon themes of pleasure, fantasy and even a kind of unrestrained hedonism.
The bejeweled protagonist in Princess and the Posse, for instance, looks like she has just stepped out of a Mardi Gras parade. In the witty Monkey Magic: Sex, Money and Drugs, a stylized monkey holding a cup is surrounded by a sparkling white field. Ofili is at his comic best in The Naked Soul of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars.
In general, the strength of Ofili's work has to do with its dense yet luminous surface. Third Eye Vision, for instance, is an almost totally abstract painting featuring an eye in the upper center area of a composition packed with surrounding layers of hard-edge, geometric forms. Here, as in other works on view, the artist has expertly integrated texture and image in a manner that allows the picture to breathe and sing.
Chris Ofili, "Afrobiotics," Oct. 16-Nov. 13., 1999, at Gavin Brown's Enterprise, 436 West 15th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.