Oxford (again) and Modern Drawing

Frantic. That is how modern living can be described. Last Saturday we were in Oxford showing off the Pitt Rivers Museum to Ellie, and finding a good seat for the World Cup Quarter final. Then all the business of a week in retirement, not to mention exit from said competition and here I am back in Oxford again. This time at Modern Art Oxford, for a rare drawing exhibition.

Drawing as an art form had a very difficult twentieth century when attempts were made by art schools to render it obsolete. Luckily we have all come to our senses and drawing is back. Not just the renaissance and historical drawings that the Ashmolean, Fitzwilliam and British Museum are famous for (not to mention the Royal Collection at Windsor) but modern and post modern gems.

The latest exhibition at Modern Art Oxford,  A Slice Through the World “updates and challenges some of the ideas tested during an important moment in Oxford art history, namely the international group show”; Drawing 1972. There is so much to see here that shows the modern artists at their creative best, but not ignoring traditional ideas and materials. Aura- Natasha Ogunji opens the show with The proof, an undersea volcano, attraction, extraction, distraction, 2017. Ink, graphite and thread on tracing paper display several levels in the artist’s mind and the lightness of the paper shimmers in the breeze within the gallery. Are the figure(s) gods above the abstract lava flows? Blue flows replacing the red of molten rock and are the threads part of the human figures or part of the lava flow? Take your time to take in the messages. Leave the frantic world outside.

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Aura-Natasha Ogunji, The Proof, an undersea volcano, attraction, extraction, distraction, 2017.

Laid out on trestle tables like an exam room (Oxford) are 100 pages of an atlas of Europe, pages blacked out with graphite, except for single white spots denoting each settlement. Are we being asked to look at our busy continent as if we would view the night sky. There are no borders here, no history, no prejudices, no conflict – just that tranquility and intrigue we enjoy when we look at the stars on a stlll moonless night. And yet there is the blackness of the sea which like space is the emptiness that is necessary to define the boundaries.

There are, of course, traditional pencil on paper figurative work and the best of these can be found in the Piper Room. The theme here is that the artist has adopted other media, mainly photography, and created their own forms. Most importantly the moment has been celebrated by the artist rather than simply copying the event in film. Look closely at Nidhul Chamekh’s Trois Poses De Fadhel Sassi, 2016, made from burned bread and charcoal on canvas. The original photos were of Fadhel Sassi, a Tunisian professor being assassinated During the bread riots of 1984. Where there was no movement in the original, Chamekh has subtly reframed them and reorganised them to tell his story. Grim as it is it is important for journalists to record the event and for the artist to prick our consciousness  the spiritual meaning.

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Nidhul Chamekh, Trois Poses De Fadhel Sassi, 2016

Next door is Barbara Walkers brilliant graphite on embossed paper, Untiltled, 2018 with its relevance to this years commemoration. The medium allows for the military actions of the black soldiers, marginalised by history to receive a special presence, juxtaposed with the embossed removal of their white colleagues. 

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Barbara Walker, Untitled 2018

To me there are three types of drawing to see at exhibitions. There are the preparatory sketches necessary in the development of paintings and sculpture. There are the drawings and cartoons that have been created through history which, due to the fame of the artist and his other works, have become works of art in their own right. Then there are those drawings that are created to stand alone and individual. This exhibition at Oxford is a celebration of these in the modern era. Set in the calmness of this wonderful inner city space these works invite a reverence that is not unlike a medieval cathedral. Don’t rush through but take time and the spirit of these works will reveal themselves to you. What you see in a drawing is more of the artist’s mind than probably any other art form.

They are of course a few high energy works. Look for Disgrace I, II, III & IV, 2009, where Kate Davis, while acknowledging Amedeo Modigliano’s vacuous female nudes, has also chosen to confuse your senses with her own image. She has taken / appropriated some of Modigliani’s drawings from a monograph and superimposed lines and marks which she traced around her own body. While your first impression is one of desecration you start to see the intermingling of the bodies and some substitution, and again what she is saying with the strength and emotion lost in other media.

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Kate Davis, Disgrace, 2009

You may gather from all this that I believe in drawing as the primary elemental artform , even the essence of art going back to the caves and the starting point for everything else. Enjoy the great drawings of the renaissance of course but also come here for raw beauty and emotional consciousness.

A Slice Through the World is at Modern Art Oxford until 9th September

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