Oxford Modern Art has a reputation for bringing the very best of the modern to this city of medieval tradition. Very often this is in the form of installation and modern media but occasionally there is an exhibition of paintings which really opens up the space. I have seen Graham Sutherland and an amazing exhibition of Jenny Saville’s work here in recent years, so I was looking forward to the current show with some thirty larger than life figures by Claudette Johnson.
Claudette Johnson, The Manchester born figurative artist, exudes power from every sinew of paint. She has a message to tell as well; that the black female has been degraded through colonial slavery and racism for decades and centuries. Johnson fights back using art historical reference in the line of Egon Scheile and Paul Klee and the gesture of de Kooning and Toulouse-Lautrec to express her message.
I came to Dance, the title she chose for this exhibition, she has used to express the dichotomy of the role of dance in Afro – Caribbean communities. The pleasure and the pain of dance and music and the impact of racial stereotyping.
To understand the humanity and the presence which Johnson is expressing in this exhibition it is necessary to be in the space. Instead of experiencing the small twisted space of history you are invited to engage in a wide collaborative experience. The space at Oxford Modern Art allows this collaboration to take place. The large figures seem to float in the space and engage you with their colour and vitality.
In Johnson’s words, “the fiction of ‘blackness’, that is the legacy of colonialism, can be interrupted by the encounter with the stories about ourselves.”
Claudette Johnson, I Came to Dance, which is at Oxford Modern Art until 8th September, is a must see exhibition.