Ofili's paintings are not hung on the wall; they lean against it, supported by two "feet" made of elephant dung. In a normal setting -- his concurrent show at Gavin Brown's Enterprise in Chelsea, or in the pair of Brooklyn Museum galleries where other Ofili works stand -- this set-up gives Ofili's pieces a pleasantly informal air, despite their large scale. But in Brooklyn, his now notorious work is anything but relaxed and welcoming: You can't stand any closer than 10 feet away, and Ofili's dense use of collage, paint, glitter, resin, and pachyderm poop isn't very readable from such a distance.
I'd planned on trying to ignore Ofili when seeing this show. He seemed like a mindless provocateur. As it turned out, he's topped in that regard by at least half of the 40-odd artists here. Amid the slick squalor of much of Sensation, his art looks utterly heartfelt.
Components of this squalor include Damien Hirst's box full of flies feeding on the bloody head of a cow; Sarah Lucas' stunningly unclever puns on human anatomy, where women are represented in one piece as two melons and a bucket, and in another as two fried eggs and a kebab; Jake and Dinos Chapman's tired rehashings of their one big idea -- mannequins of young girls sprouting male and female sex organs where their eyes, mouths, noses, and ears should be; Richard Billingham's photographic essay on his drunken, brawling, poor, ugly parents and their mangy pets, whose sad lives he quickly sold to the wealthy ad-man whose collection spawned Sensation.
It is no great sin to reduce these artists to such nasty and cheap descriptions. They traffic in broad ideas about death, sex, and the body. They also tend to work in slick formats, so the ideas are directly translated into objects without the intercession of craft. The ideas and the objects are generic, bald in every less-common sense of the term (lacking ornamentation, unadorned, undisguised, blunt -- many of the sculptures, on the other hand, do have hair).
I felt a little disgust at the more explicit of Hirst's vivisectionings, and disgust is a sensation, so the title of the show is perhaps apt. But if I may once again consult my American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition, I felt neither "a state of heightened interest or emotion," nor "a state of intense public interest and excitement." The public looked bored, spending as much time reading the pieces' labels as looking at the work itself.
The gallery-goers' attentiveness to labels, as well as their absorption in their museum-issued Walkmans playing a David Bowie-narrated audio guide, was understandable: Many pieces required a lot of goosing to reveal their intended meanings. A lovely series of paintings of racehorses, tendentiously titled Race, Class, Sex, was, we were told, reminding us of the poor treatment and commodification of these glorious beasts. Nearby, Michael Landy's installation of an actual flower cart full of actual, lovely blooming flowers "comes out of anger" and "exposes how manipulative our economic system is." It did nothing of the sort. The flowers smelled good, however; a nice respite from the elephant dung (which actually has a not-unpleasant, subtle, musty smell to it) and the rotting flesh.
I ended up lingering mostly on the paintings, and only those most resistant to one-sentence reductions of their subject matter. Richard Patterson photorealistically transforms cheap plastic toys into the Olympian figures children find in them. Jenny Saville's large nudes owe a lot to Lucien Freud, but seem less cruel in their observation of human imperfections. And of Fiona Rae's lovely, large-scale image-collages, I could only write in my notes, "Fiona Rae can paint." As for Chris Ofili, he got much worse than he deserves. In a show full of artists with purposefully simplistic ideas and annoyingly literal execution, his exploration of a heritage he doesn't know firsthand -- particularly through black American style and black African spirituality -- can be really engaging, while his painstakingly layered, smartly composed paintings are stuffed with visual interest. He's not a proper poster boy for the depraved cosmopolitan artist; I rather suspect him of the great modern-day crime of sincerity.