Roy Oxlade's Subtle Strain of Humour

At Alison Jacques Gallery, London, the late artist's paintings are caught in the act of testing their own mettle

Roy Oxlade wanted his work to seem artless. Throughout his 50-year career, the painter, who died in 2014 at the age of 85, was renowned for the summer schools he taught in Sittingbourne, Kent. At the same time, he loathed ‘the artiness of art’, encouraging his students to unsophisticate themselves. His critical essays, written throughout his career, consistently sent the 20th century to the wall. ‘Shakespeare’, he wrote in ‘A Fear of Transcendence’ (2005), ‘was onto people like Marcel Duchamp.’ He threw out Amedeo Modigliani, Henry Moore, all pop art. Only a few escaped. By studying the cave drawings at Les Eyzies, for instance, Henri Matisse made sketches such as Reclining Nude Seen from the Back (1938), with rudimentary shapes that Oxlade called ‘original’ and ‘primary’. To Oxlade, returning to ‘primitivism’ was the way to the future.

In his own paintings, he tried to demonstrate the principles of his ‘reformation in art’. The first solo exhibition of the artist’s work since his death, at Alison Jacques Gallery in London, features 13 works from the 1980s and ’90s; they were all painted in oils, indoors, in the studio he shared for decades with his wife, Rose Wylie. The strokes are energetic and quick; their textures can be clotted or thin. For subjects, they mostly enlist whatever was near at hand: tools, cutlery, a lamp, the cat, the body of Rose herself.

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Roy Oxlade, Three Electric Fires, 1988, oil on canvas, 1.2 x 1.5 m. Courtesy: Alison Jacques Gallery, London © Estate of Roy Oxlade

Oxlade’s usual mode is a subtle strain of humour, midway between absurdity and trenchant wit. In Lemon Squeezer (1987), that yellow utensil vies for your eye with a grey female form, in a double-act of bright little and drab large. Profile and Brushes (1984–85), meanwhile, plays a cartoonish portrait off against the two fat brushes beside it; the supposed refinements of painting are cast as simple-minded and self-assured. Sometimes the works are content to exult in mere colour, as when the eponymous Blue Stalks (1998) leap electrically from their vase to outshine the red wall behind them. Oxlade cares much more for the radiance of those flowers than the two figures posing on either side.

These paintings don’t contain metaphors; they refuse to be opened up to paraphrase. As the pairings above suggest, they’re self-contained works, designed around a balance of form. Oxlade listened to contrapuntal music while he painted, especially Bach, and once wrote that ‘comparable exchanges should be a feature of paintings and drawings’. Counterpoint shuttles between alternatives; Oxlade’s brushwork is contrapuntal this way: seemingly naïve, there are years of study behind its attention to itself. Short, crisp daubs can stretch into longer, smoother strokes; cool blues and wild reds can be swept away into blocks of white. In Figure and Two Brushes (1987), a line traces the back of a reclining head, then it accelerates and tightens, sweeping with relish around the crown. Everywhere, painting is caught in the act of testing its own mettle.

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Roy Oxlade, Green Curtain, 1996, oil on canvas, 1.8 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: Alison Jacques Gallery, London © Estate of Roy Oxlade 

Oxlade was a Catholic; he went to Sunday Mass (according to Reg Gadney’s obituary in The Guardian) streaked with paint. He despaired at what he saw as the ‘corruption’ of contemporary art, thought it needed to rediscover ‘intimations of transcendence’, and felt that salvation lay in returning to the basics, to ‘a shared language of drawing’. Honest work, whether in charcoal or oils, would refine our ‘instinctive’ connection to beauty. The paintings in ‘Work from the 1980s and ’90s’ live by that belief; at every twist and dash their brushstrokes are suffused with introspection. Oxlade’s canvases weren’t shaped by history, but something more personal – hope.

Roy Oxlade, ‘Works from the ’80s and ’90s’ runs at Alison Jacques Gallery, London, until 7 April.

Main image: Roy Oxlade, Rose and Ink Pot, 1987, (detail), oil on canvas, 1.2 x 1.5 m. Courtesy: Alison Jacques Gallery, London © Estate of Roy Oxlade

Cal Revely-Calder is a writer and editor from London, and the winner of the 2017 Frieze Writers’ Prize.

Issue 195

First published in Issue 195

May 2018

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