Decide it’s time once again to extend my rambling horizons beyond those of the teeming streets of the capital’s invigoratingly nervous hub and so determine to head off out into the great provincial wilderness and, more specifically, investigate the byways and backwaters of the fine old university town of Oxford. And, of course, it’s pretty busy here too with all the day-tripper tourists bustling about trying to find picturesque scenes of pretty architectural edifices and happy punting students to provide the confirmative defining backdrops that will illuminate the selfie-stick record of their expedition into the heart of merrie old England’s ancient seat of learning. As for me, I’ve been here a few times before and am, consequently, perhaps inured to the Baroquial charms of the honey-coloured stones and underinterested in undergraduates, whether waterborne or terrestrial. Indeed, my immediate requirement is just to find some shelter from the drizzling precipitative patter that is slowly soaking its way through the protective folds of my heavy woollen hoodie. Which is how I come to find myself entering into one of the more modern, metallic and altogether aesthetically chillier and less distinctively attractive buildings that occupy the town – namely that of Modern Art Oxford.
Here the current show is entitled Fantastic Cities which, I suppose, conjures up images ranging all the way from recreations of the magical metropolises of Harry Potteresque whimsy to the futuristic dystopian horrors that seem to be the common default cliche backdrop for all contemporary computer video gamesplaying stories. And the thought occurs to me that a seriously considered exploration of these twin territories might actually prove to be quite an interesting investigation, allowing both for a look at how the rapid advances in technological and computational developments have resulted in ever more convincing graphical representations of simulated cities, while also noting the parallel evolution of the different narrative structures which these ghostly simulacra then promote…or something like that.
But no such luck. The exhibition is, instead, a sort of mini-retrospective of works by the artist Penny Woolcock and the three main video displays that open her show contain no witches flying on broomsticks or warlocks fighting duels with their wands, and no screeching car chases or machine gun shoot outs with extra toppings of glamour, gristle and gore. Instead, there’s a screen of talking heads reading out excerpts from Thomas More’s Utopia; a descriptive walk down an urban street as seen through two different sets of eyes; and more chitchat with a bunch of people describing the first time they ever saw a handgun. In short, it’s the kind of earnest, worthy but dull, quasi-documentary presentation that I just find utterly uninteresting when occupying the display space of an art gallery. And I can’t help thinking that a more appropriate setting for such works would be buried deep in Channel 4’s late night schedules or else sunk in the depths of the You Tube archive of unliked videos. At which point, having dried out my soggy togs to a sufficient degree of desiccation, I decide to race through the rest of the show – which seems to consist of more videos and accompanying photos and sketches that form a sort of rough generalised autobiographical essay about Woolcock and her development into the artist she now appears to be.
Exiting the gallery, I’m pleased to find that the rain has stopped as I dodge past the puddles and tourists blocking my way and skip along through the streets and shops to get to get to the main stop on today’s itinerary, that august institution of mighty museological magnificence – the great Ashmolean Museum.
And for those of a seriously enquiring nature, here are situated stacks of Egyptian artefacts and ephemera; dozens of cracked white marble statues of all manner of ancient classical deities; racks of pristine pottery exemplars charting the works of ceramicists from across the ages; and a whole host of other fascinating historical trophies gathered together by Mr Ashmole and the leagues of equally acquisitive adventurers and explorers that succeeded him, especially in the Victorian age of reason when assembling collections of taxonomical curiosities seemed to be such an obsessional hobby among the patrician classes who had the time and money to indulge in following these kinds of noble intellectual pursuits.
But for those of a less seriously enquiring nature, there is also an amusing temporary exhibition of works by that most shameless of shaman, the master snake oil salesman and true representative of our own age of decadent Post-Modern vacuity. I refer, of course, to the inimitable Jeff Koons and his mini-retrospective of ready-made sculptures and studio-built assemblages. Before taking a quick stroll amongst all the iconic items of his back catalogue of superficial treats, however, I implore any would-be visitor to first watch the brief but hugely entertaining video presentation that shows the Musuem’s director Alexander Sturgis gamely trying to interview Koons, who must be one of the most professionally practiced and skillfully loquacious of all artists who have ever taken the opportunity to define and defend their artistic practices. And, goodness me, doesn’t he do it well. Waffling on about how the act of breathing has been so important to him that he’s incorporated it into his artworks as a vital metaphorical symbol of life’s energy, his words flow with a silky mellifluous fluidity that is so totally beguiling that, while the content may be consistently nugatory, sharing all the solidity of a candyfloss comestible, his own facial expression of deep sincerity remains the very model of utter integrity, sincerity and charm.
But then turn to look at the interlocutor Sturgis and here is a man who may have risen to the great heights of Museum directorship despite (or maybe because of) having the appearance of a cross between Bertie Wooster’s friend Gussy Finknottle and an elongated beanpole, and he can barely keep a straight face. Having to listen to Koons’ well-practiced gibberish, poor old Sturgis visibly starts to crack up and corpse, and it clearly takes all his efforts in self-control to curtail the smirking smile that is forming on his face and about to erupt into a shriek of giggles at having to listen to all the ridiculous flatulent puffery that is being pooted in his general direction.
So, well done Sturgis for managing (just about) to keep a straight face. As for the Koons collection, well, fans will be familiar with all the elaborately constructed jokes, from the basketball suspended in a water tank to the giant-sized wooden carvings of kitsch souvenirs, and from the shiny aluminium effigies of balloon sculptures to the latest recreations of old master paintings to which have been added silver balls to reflect both artwork and audience. As mentioned above, when assembled together all these items seem to provide a sort of perfect metaphorical representation of the triviality, fakery and radical nonsensicality of the times in which we live. Indeed, as life catches up with artistic outliers like Koons, works that once seemed to be almost insultingly outrageous have now become readily accepted into the institutional world as respectable and worthy of consideration or even veneration. O tempora o mores.
Anyway, enough of all that. And since it doesn’t really take very long to walk around and absorb all the lessons available from Koons and his creations, there’s plenty of time to have a slow wander through the Museum’s main permanent collection of proper historical artworks. And it’s a pretty reasonable collection with quite a few highlights worth looking out for, starting off with the small hunting scene by Uccello in which the huntsmen, their dogs dart in and out of a stylised wood as they head symmetrically towards the distant perspectival vanishing point that was such a great invention of the Renaissance artists of the day. (And apologies that he photo here above is a bit blurry and doesn’t do justice to the precision strokes of the actual proper painting.)
Elsewhere amongst the classical collection are impressive works by Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto and Montagna, while bringing things a bit closer to home are flattering full length portraits of assorted toffs by Van Dyck, Gainsborough and Reynolds, and Turner’s wonderful painting of Oxford High Street (pictured above at the start of the blog). As for the Early Modern stuff, there’s a smallish selection of Impressionst works and a reasonable bunch of Sickerts (see Ennui below) but best of all are the various Pre-Raphaelite paintings, especially Millais’ famous iconic portrait of Ruskin, created at the same time as the aspiring young artist was succumbing to the amatory charms of the great critic’s wife (detail above). Finally, the Later Modern gallery is a bit of a mess and far too crowded and hopefully one day Sturgis will get around to organising a proper rehang, winnowing out some of the weaker works (for example the second rate squibs by Picasso and Matisse) to allow the good stuff – the Freud nude, the Stanley Spencer cacti; the Hodgkin abstract, the Hepworth sculpture – the space they deserve.