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Hanuman © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Oxfordshire Art: the exotic and the beautiful everyday

The Ashmolean is currently presenting Monkey Tales: Apes and Monkeys in Asian Art (free; in Gallery 29 until 30th October) which celebrates 2016 as the Year of the Monkey
Oxfordshire Artweeks

"The everyday still inspires a new generation of artists."

Through a variety of papercuts, woodblock prints and lithographs spanning several centuries, this year you can meet adventurous and mischievous monkeys which span Asia, from Iran to Japan.


The Ashmolean’s Monkey Tales: Apes and Monkeys in Asian Art exhibition highlights two of the mythical monkey figures best known outside Asia – the Hindu monkey warrior Hanuman and the Monkey King in scenes from ‘Journey to the West’, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature (widely-known as Waley’s abridged translation ‘Monkey’), and probably the most popular book in the history of the Far East, dating back to the sixteenth century and latter half of the Ming Dynasty.

'Squash-ed' by Ruth Swain


The exhibition shows us not only monkeys as gods but as creatures in the wild too, as can be seen in a 1900 print of the native Japanese macaque by prolific Japanese printmaker Ohara Koson. Koson was best known for his depictions of birds and flowers, however, and like many other artists, he shows the everyday life in beautiful ways that encourage the viewer to identify additional qualities in objects and scenes that would normally be considered unexceptional.

The Christchurch Picture Gallery is currently hosting an exhibition that does the same, but is very different in style. ‘The Beautiful Everyday: Old Master Drawings, Transforming the Mundane into Art’ (runs until 17 October, £4 admission fee applies) is a selection from their renowned collection of Old Master paintings and drawings which includes works by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Dürer, Raphael and Rubens. Depicting the ordinary, the ‘everyday’ in art is, they argue, a modern concept and the role of artist with these pictures is to show the extraordinary, otherworldliness, and to elevate objects in the world around them, their artistic interpretation making the day-to-day worthy of depiction.

Today, in Oxfordshire, the everyday still inspires a new generation of artists. Ruth Swain, from Sutton Courtney, is primarily a portrait artist – but with a background in illustration and a fresh eye, her unique take on this month’s harvest, for example, is set to raise a smile.

“I’m fascinated by detail,” Ruth explains, “in faces, plants or animals. I love painting portraits most of all and I love working from life rather than photos, but sometimes when I don’t have any sitters, I will paint just something from the fridge!”

Meanwhile, Cotswold artist Mary Knowland is currently producing drawings and paintings with an ‘unseeing’ technique, creating art without looking at it. Mary tells us more:

“It seems counterintuitive, but the ‘unseeing’ process requires full focus on the subject matter, and creates a greater connection with what you’re observing - whether it’s a group of objects, a figure or a place.

“Brain-hand-eye-coordination takes over the making process and the essence of the subject emerges as a drawing or painting. I love working this way and adding the paint after the drawn ink lines which, to my amazement, always lands roughly where it needs to be!”

The everyday inspires art in three dimensions, too. Rose Wallace is a ceramic artist who, tucked away in Magdalen Road Studios in East Oxford, creates unique contemporary figures which charmingly capture the minutiae of modern life and, often created in a gentle natural palette or cream, take you from today’s busy world into light-hearted calm and peaceful contemplation.

If you take a close look, you’ll see that Wallace’s ceramic figures are crafted from the shapes of contemporary packaging and discarded ephemera – objects The Borrowers would have found useful in their foraging!

Rose enjoys giving objects no longer considered useful a part to play in her art as a comment on green issues: “My fascination for things that have been discarded is rooted in my childhood,” she explains. “I was delighted when my father, a gardener by trade, unearthed ‘gems’ from beneath our feet. My treasures would be no more than a Victorian beer bottle or paste pot but I considered them worthy finds nonetheless.”

One of Rose’s favourite haunts is the local Aston’s Eyot Nature Reserve, a thirty-acre ‘island’ bordered by both the Thames and the Cherwell which was once a domestic dumping ground for Victorian city dwellers and where, after it has rained, the earth exposes previously hidden objects, which form part of Wallace’s creative musings.

“Other transient objects like the plastic packaging of today’s consumerist society become our past immediately and I use these too,” she says. “Then, when you look beyond the obvious narrative in my artwork you find ‘the past’ within the familiar domestic forms, and surfaces that tell yet another tale.”

Rose’s technique is labour intensive: she takes detailed plaster casts of the original items and then uses them to mould and animate her contemporary figurines. It can take over thirty objects and four hours crafting to make a single piece.

She also keeps tumbler pigeons, so her love for these domestic birds and their everyday charm is captured in endearing ceramics, created from more unremarkable objects, like a common broken clay pipe or simple seashell.

For even more contemporary reflection on the everyday and art, Blenheim Palace is hosting an extensive solo exhibition of Michelangelo Pistoletto, Italian painter, action and object artist and art theorist, this autumn (until 31st December). One of the main representatives of the Arte Povera, a radical Italian art movement from the late 1960s to 1970s whose artists explored a range of unconventional processes and nontraditional materials, Pistoletto unifies art and everyday life with his Gesamtkunstwerks – artistic creations that are a synthesis of various art forms including music and drama. This show is the most comprehensive UK display of his work to date, exploring the diverse range of his fifty-year practice, from painting and sculpture to large-scale installations, as well as new works made specifically for this Blenheim show.

Among the canonical works featured will be the artist’s ongoing series of Mirror Paintings – photosilkscreened images on polished steel which project the viewer’s reflection into the picture plane.

For more information on Monkey Tales visit ashmolean.org, on The Beautiful Everyday: Old Master Drawings Transforming the Mundane into Art see chch.ox.ac.uk/gallery, and for Michelangelo Pistoletto’s UK show, head to blenheimartfoundation.org.uk.

More information on Artweeks artists Ruth Swain, Mary Knowland, Fleur Ensur and Rose Wallace can be seen at ruthswain.co.uk; fleurenser.co.uk; maryknowlandartist.com and rosewallaceceramics.co.uk.

Mary Knowland & Fleur Enser are exhibiting their work on 19th and 20th of November in Chadlington and Lower Heyford respectively as part of the Oxfordshire Artweeks Christmas Season. See artweeks.org for further details on these and other local exhibitions.

- Esther Lafferty


Top Image - Hanuman © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Bottom Image - 'Squash-ed' by Ruth Swain


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