Paul Noble is shaping up as one of Britain's most idio- syncratic artists. Not for him the coolness of minimal abstraction or multiscreen video installations. Noble opts for an old-fashioned HB pencil. And he wields it with astonishing virtuosity. One of the drawings displayed in his mesmeric exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in east London is epic enough to fill the width of a titanic wall, but it is executed, like all his others, with a miniaturist's painstaking attention to fanatical detail.
Noble's work is overwhelming. All the images spring from his obsession with the fictional city of Nobson Newtown. A crazy utopian fantasy, it has expanded to mythic proportions since he began a mission to depict everything from the hospital (Nobspital) to the cemetery (Nobsend). The megalomaniac extravagance of the project has a sour undertone. A profound malaise has infected Nobson Newtown, and its symptoms are disturbingly apparent.
An immensely tall drawing is dominated by a building sprouting four minarets, each reminiscent of Trajan's Column. The edifice seems deserted, and the whole structure turns out to be propped up by vertical columns of bones. Elongated chains hang down from the minarets and trail across the ground. Al-though the bunting on the roof strikes a festive note, an air of imminent decay hangs over everything.
In common with Stanley Spencer, Noble is not afraid to incorporate religious references. "Jesus Betrayed," proclaims an inscription on the facade, just above an image of a bizarre figure busily irrigating a tree with a watering can. Directly beneath, a sculpture of the dead Christ in a pieta pose appears reverential. But he clasps a laughable bunch of carrots next to his long, curling penis, and the cloaked man holding him bears an alarming resemblance to a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan.
Confusion multiplies behind the pieta group, where the word "Synagogue'' is lodged in large, three-dimensional Nobfont letters. And just as we begin to grapple with the change from mosque to Jewish worship, we notice some even grander letters below, which spell out "Shopping Mall". Clearly, the priorities of Mammon have usurped spiritual values, and closer inspection reveals that the entire facade of this retail temple is smothered with scatological drawings. They seem to be the work of a half-demented, anally fixated adolescent who has just discovered sex. Turds, penises, buttocks and vaginas spring up everywhere, along with a gleeful indulgence in rampant penetration.
Not for nothing is Noble's world called Nobson. The mall has degenerated into a centre where phallic urges run riot. Sex overrides even shopping in this secularised sin-palace. The drawings are handled with cartoonish aplomb, suggesting that Noble the undoubted moralist coexists with a zanier artist who takes voyeuristic delight in defining orgies at their most indiscriminate. His subversive sense of humour should not be underestimated. One of his drawings is entitled Huh Huh, and the two words erupt from the paper like an unstoppable, debunking guffaw.
At the end of the exhibition's main room stands Noble's only brief nod to new media: a silent, black-and-white DVD projection. He calls this three-minute loop Egg Face, but we soon realise that it is, in reality, a monumental pair of buttocks straining for a shit. Squeamish visitors may be relieved to turn away from this daunting spectacle and study, as a corrective, the quaintly embroidered screen nearby.
Embellished with a marquetry base executed by the artist's brother, the screen turns out to be a remarkably restrained exercise. An unusual amount of space on the screen has been left empty, albeit studded with tiny white beads. Strange rectangular fragments float through the sky, while a blurred pinkness seems to explode from the branch of the dominant tree. The fuzzy particles turn out to be a nest, suggesting an unexpected celebration of new life.
Birds and animals feature in all of Noble's works, often outnumbering humans. These irrepressible creatures are frequently just as mischievous. They proliferate over the surface of a two-metre-high white egg mounted on a stand. From a distance, it looks like a straightforward sculpture, but as we approach this swollen form and walk around it, our eyes are ensnared by the pencil drawings that cover its surface. Fish, birds and furry little beasts abound. Yet any pleasure proves short-lived, because hypodermic needles can also be seen, injecting the creatures with substances that render them helpless. They lie prone in cages, waiting to be subjected to all kinds of unimaginable experiments. Animal abuse permeates the entire egg.
The largest drawing on view is a 17-sheet colossus, Ye Olde Ruin. The title might lull viewers into imagining that Noble's intentions here are Romantic, even Sublime. But the image itself soon disabuses us of this. Among the meticulously drawn tombstones and architectural follies, we find a couplet from the 12th-century Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: "One thing is certain, and the rest is lies;/The flower that once has blown for ever dies."
The words make chilling sense. The emphasis on multiple meanings, mischief-making and bravura accomplishment drops away. Beneath its prodigious energy and inventiveness, Noble's vision is seasoned with an elegiac awareness of transience, futility and the grave.
"Paul Noble" is at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London E1 (020 7522 7888) until 14 November