Review of Quirkism II: Ovada, Oxford

Quirkism II, ran throughout May at Ovada, Oxford. The exhibition showcased analytical and confessional works by a number of artists that are at once challenging and exciting. A “quirk” is a chance detail spearheading the production of art, that seen here offered perceptive and intriguing angles on the empirical and the virtual. Quirkism II will be at the Grapevine Gallery, Mattersey, under the title Quirkism III this summer.

One of the artists involved is Alex Lewis, and his Holiday, 1, 2 and 3, offer a trio of cloud scenes. The paintings recall Hokusai’s dramatic clarity, unambiguous yet deceptively simple images of nature. Part of their appeal lies in vivid colours we find tonally striking but not overwhelming. Our attention is caught rather than demanded, and the blue sky, with brush strokes that are random instead of smooth, mirror the sublime imperfections of what surrounds us. Alex Lewis’ paintings are complete, but they aptly depict nature as spontaneous and unfinished.

Sunday Painter, by Oliver Mulvihill, builds upon Alex Lewis’ theme of nature. A worker sits in a landscape, a rainbow above. Virgilian pastoral is tacitly at work here, the subject a modest figure and yet seeming to meditate rather than passively observe. The image deftly marries the beautiful and the philosophical.

Two pieces by Chris Campbell bring something autobiographical to the exhibition. A Cold Penetrating Rush and Exploding Flowers from the Limbs are stark images of the artist’s legs and feet when he was suffering back pain at home. Created on an iPad, the prints attest to an anguished mindset, the urgent lines and textures almost resembling lacerations, capturing the psychology of that plight but with no appeal for sympathy. For all their frankness, there is courage about these pieces, torment that was mastered by a patient and singularly adaptive imagination.

To Connect, by Chloe Abrahams, there is something outwardly elusive – an object, we suppose, veiled by a curtain – only to offer a study in association. Coolly subverting E.M. Forster’s benign entreaty that we “Only Connect”, a computer screen presents a chat room dialogue. “Robert” asks “Ronald” whether he is “Lookin’ for a bit of fun”, Ronald replying that he is writing on behalf of his son, James. Ronald says he is “…up 5 the fun”, only for Robert to disappear and Ronald to ask “Is anyone…there”, seemingly hesitant and disappointed at the loss of some otherwise warped opportunity. A cocktail of raw implication and sexual reticence, we see in Connect how online anonymity fosters moral relativism, sentiments that would be inappropriate or suggestive in everyday discourse purportedly acceptable when expressed by invisible speakers, free to interact in however guarded or casual a manner they please. Connect, in neither condoning nor indicting the exchange, neatly pastiches the “anything goes” mentality of such interactions. Perhaps the core virtue of the work is that it evokes and satirises those indiscretions with a tolerant rather than didactic eye.

Quirkism II is a remarkable exhibition, as much for the intellectual as the aesthetic merits of the work on display. Even in addressing such involved themes as classicism, the environment, the plight of the individual, and how the digital world has redefined human etiquette, these pieces are content to make neutral statements rather than pass social judgments. These are works of art, not polemic, and yet with fierce originality they interrogate the sphere we inhabit, personal stoicism, and whether normative saturation in online culture is generating valid or spurious orthodoxies. From these burgeoning talents, Contemporary British Art should anticipate something brilliant and consequential.

Quirkism II, 9-25 May, Ovada, The Warehouse, 14A Osney Lane, Oxford, OX1 1NJ.

Sam Cane

1. Alex Lewis, install shot, courtesy of the artist.

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