Grotesque? It’s not all grim…


Performance artists are nothing if not mysterious. Gentle prodding about the nature of their contribution to Oxford Art Movement’s ‘Sublime and Grotesque’ exhibition was taken with good humour but produced little reward: despite allusions to butchery and hot beverages, they’re keeping schtum. Their statement? “Through our immediate presence we bring to you a celebration of our shared physicality, a moment in which to revel in the body as a visceral artwork.” Our interest is piqued.

Whether this ‘viscera’ refers to the expected audience reaction – or the artists’ internal organs – remains to be seen. Having previewed a selection of OAM’s non-performance artwork set aside for their upcoming exhibition, neither would come as a surprise. If nothing else, you can expect the unexpected.
So what do we know? Well, ‘Sublime and Grotesque’ is founded on Victor Hugo’s famous quote: “As a means of contrast with the sublime, the grotesque is, in our view, the richest source that nature can offer”. Sometimes perverse, and sometimes inspired, the show’s collection is formed by work from throughout the undergraduate and graduate body of the University, with some contributions from Ruskin students. It’s been a challenge, but one OAM has relished: Dan Udy of the Ruskin spoke to us about the difficulties in organising an audience, and the necessity for art students to take advantage of these limited opportunities for performance work. “Oxford Art Movement provides an excellent vehicle for students to showcase performance artwork for an audience, which is so often hard to orchestrate or arrange”.

The selection of work previewed focuses on changing perceptions of beauty: think maimed life models and unhappy harlequins. As is perhaps inevitably the case with open-entry exhibitions, there is slight lack of cohesion across the works – and dubious technical skill in places – but what might be missing in execution is more than compensated-for with buckets of enthusiasm. The works comprise oils, acrylics, watercolours and ‘mixed media’, with very broad interpretations of an already capacious theme.

“We wanted a theme that would be easy to engage with, with breadth and depth”, said current OAM president Imogen Woodberry, the event’s principal organiser. “There’s something very attractive about the Romanticism element there, too. We set up ‘still lifes’ with sublime and grotesque elements at Oxford Art Movement over the last term as a springboard, although there’s a lot of work in the exhibition that has been done in people’s own time. Overall, we’re really pleased with the level of participation and enthusiasm everyone seems to have for the exhibition”.
The Movement itself is an entirely student-run organisation, which offers the respite of quiet cups of tea and mandarins on gloomy Saturday afternoons. A couple of pounds per session provides a bit of peace, unlimited art supplies and the opportunity to take a break from the ‘real work’ and engage with one’s creative side. People from across the University trickle in and out over the course of the afternoon, stopping for a couple of hours to make birthday cards, produce small-scale masterpieces or grapple with Woodberry’s inventive still lifes.

Christ Church’s art room, the venue, is perhaps its best-kept secret: a treasure-trove of supplies, resources, books and magazines and even a printing press. It’s not immediately easy to find – and does require doing battle with a bevy of be-camera-ed Saturday afternoon tourists – but well worth the effort.
Peter Rhoades, art tutor at the host college, supports the scheme, allowing access to the room, and organising opportunities for students across the University to be involved with his life drawing classes. This contribution in particular has filtered into the work for exhibition, with a particularly memorable pair of breasts cropping up in a number of different people’s works. Perhaps one of the nicest things about the Movement is its more wandering, aimless quality – the standard of the work is unassessed, doesn’t count for anything, and is unlikely to garner CV points: Oxford Art Movement is, at the end of the day, art for art’s sake.

So, is their new exhibition worth a punt? From the tantalising hints we saw, the answer is yes. While undeniably patchy in places, there is also some very strong work, on an interesting and thought-provoking theme. If nothing else, we’ll be there to see that mysterious ‘shared physicality’ for ourselves – and for the champagne of course.

The Sublime and Grotesque is on 1st February, from 19:30., Christ Church Gallery, entry £3.

Natasha Frost


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