Smile for the Camera!

As I stepped into the O3 gallery on a Friday night, I was welcomed by the buzzing warmth and babble that only a private view can bring. The spherical gallery was full of Oxford art-lovers clutching wine glasses, flicking through prints for sale and clustering around their favourite works.
Before I could join in with the chattering though, I had to get my head round the dizzyingly visual split between the two exhibiting artists – a rainbow burst of colour coupled with monochromatic drawings, the artwork was divided into two dramatically diverse styles. Currently holding a lively joint exhibition, local artists Emma Dougherty and Tim Steward are both fascinated with the historical icon which is the Radcliffe Camera, each taking it as their subject matter but tackling it with radically different results.

Dougherty’s distinctive work forms a playful, highly modern depiction using digital media to explore the space and veneration of the eighteenth century structure. Using found objects like pencils, playing cards, rulers and candles, several of her pieces form static assemblages, elegantly descending both sets of staircases within the exhibition and demanding our attention at every step. Even her digital drawing incorporates imagery from old Victorian advertisements, distinguishing between her use of virtual and physical processes. Also a keen animator, one of her videos was projected above the ground floor of the gallery, a short film that accumulates moving objects into the Rad Cam’s shape. It reminded me of the old Morph sketches from the children’s art programme, SMART, and was no doubt influenced by her time working as a primary school teacher.

Next to such colourful, tongue in cheek artworks, Steward’s black and white drawings form an imposing and unexpected contrast. An assertive mark-making and vibrant rendering of the Rad Cam’s form, he presents several stunning drawings in pastel and pigment on paper. Literally throwing the pigment at the paper at the last minute, he makes conventional drawings, seemingly obliterates them and then works back onto their surface, resulting in energetic, large-scale pieces smudged and dripping with material. The vivacious drawings also have an odd frailty about them – whilst depicting a classical icon in such a contemporary manner, Steward celebrates the mastery of “‘seeing’ and ‘drawing’”, using a traditional way of working to form some truly avant-garde sketches.

The artists themselves openly mirrored their own projects; both circulating with smiles on the opening night, Dougherty was dressed in a gorgeously vivid blue dress and orange necklace, whilst Steward played it cool in jeans and a shirt.

The complete contrast of Dougherty’s facetious experiments against Steward’s dark and striking drawings serves as a little unsettling at first. Bright polymer–clay models opposed to Steward’s impressive compositions cause nothing short of confusion, as your eye tries to choose between the quirky details in the assemblages and the masterful drawings in classic frames. Overall however, the passion for the beloved building at the heart of the University is clear in both sets of work. As the Mayor of Oxford told me, “This is modern art that is fun. It will appeal to other artists, primary school children and academics…there is something here for everyone living in Oxford.”

Here are two artists sharing a common fascination and working together to produce a dynamic, varied and curious show, and moreover, the gallery’s circular walls appropriately echo the curved architecture of the Rad Cam itself. It’s a must see if you want to be visually stunned, and enjoy traditional and modern art, or have ever admired the Rad Cam for all it signifies about life at Oxford.

Claire Davis