About the paintings of Oliver Gosling, by Bryn James, poet and diplomat.
Of all the aspects to Oliver Gosling’s paintings, perhaps the one most indicative of the underlying quality of his oeuvre is the exquisite judgement inherent in his work’s relationship with Chinese art. Oliver learns from and loves the Chinese tradition, but is not cowed by it or interested in replicating it. He wants simply to ascertain what works, acknowledge it and use it in his own context for new purposes. This is not appropriation, or the sycophantic eulogy of a gauche, pseudo-Sinophile quest for funding. It is a quiet tribute born of a pragmatic bond in sensibilities, over miles and millennia. What does he value in traditional Chinese painting? It is the confidence in the use of space, and the use of that space to deliver focus and dignity to the subjects at its centre; it is the nobility of the isolated and symbolic object – the mountainside hut of the exiled scholar-official, whose career has been dashed by dynastic change; it is the fascination with the floating line and the uncertainty which it seems to generate. Oliver also clearly relishes the cultural asymmetry whereby the use of a blank, untouched background may quite recently have been daring in a western context, but in China was for a long time simply given. He frequently adopts this technique in his own work, letting the bare canvas be sensed in all its gruff tactility. Indeed, he once told me that no-one in the UK stretches canvas quite like Chongqing-canvas stretchers.
It is also worth looking at Gosling’s relationship with China in the literal context of an artist living and working in a metropolis of many millions of people where mountains, valleys and the longest river in Asia restrict buildable land and put liveable space, and therefore also quiet, at a premium. The artist’s relationship with space here is not simply an exploration of its technical and optic possibilities, the depth-games and endless flow. It is also personal – a longing. This is a space he wants to dive into and feel deeply. A westerner who lives in Chongqing will have many assumptions tested, not the least of which is that of personal space, and its bedfellow, silence. Oliver sublimates this conflict into his work rather than complain loudly down at the Irish bar.
All artists are forced to take decisions concerning the depiction of the natural world. What role does natural imagery play in Gosling’s oeuvre? It does not soothe: his is not Daoist harmony with nature, nor is it a sense of the sublime, nor is it blind evolutionary cruelty. Nature is presented as either messed-up or inaccessible. It is waving green and brown grasses behind three sudden, side-to-side red bars across the foreground, a terrible and peremptory warning (Fence). Or it is the same waving, reedy grey and white grasses, tonally exquisite but while comfortable in their limited harmony, full of ennui: the harmony born of the lack of appetite to argue, or of sitting with the dead. Or it may be a thick, bar-like, red rain from an Eliotian infertile cloud. Nature exists conceptually, but is either inaccessible or unavailable as you would like it. Returning to biographical considerations, it is hard to imagine that this latest work of Gosling is unconnected with his experience of the wondrous and beleaguered natural world in Chongqing. He suggests the same truth as Peter Hessler in his unhappy love-poem to Chongqing, River Town, with its backdrop of heartbroken bushes and exhausted trees: in no country in the world has the middle-industrial period ever looked or smelt nice.
Some have pointed out that art these days is getting bigger, perhaps a function of the monetization of our attention, its diminution and the consequent need for the artist to fight harder and harder for it. But Oliver’s clear success with big paintings is not about that. One reason for it is simply that it fits his technique better: the boldness of his brushstrokes or other textural effects which only make sense at a distance. Even more importantly perhaps, his larger works avert the unhappy paradox of a cramped painting wanting to talk about space. In this exhibition, you will see many wonderful paintings of a medium size: they satisfy greatly, within the terms of their remit. But to visit a barn on a hill full of his largest canvases, impersonal yet suggestive, while an angry Alsatian barks outside – this to me is the total Gosling experience. Inherent in the consideration of space is the division of space. Boundaries and therefore prohibition are an essential component of Gosling’s work. The doorway too, its opposite, is ubiquitous.
Oliver is in some ways a kind of modernist. He is energised and enthralled by the process started by Cezanne and others in the development of an aesthetic fit for the machine age, and its more recent iterations. But his work raises its eyebrows at the assertion that sensual pleasure has no place in contemporary art. It is an interesting idea, it intones, but one only for a place far purer, nobler and less beholden to the flesh than planet Earth. While he may oscillate between and mix the representative and the abstract, the sensual power of the paintings is continuous.
For example, Oliver has worked hard on his use of colour. As in analytical cubism, he will use a gorgeous mix of dull, rabbit-like tones to offset an insistent and discomfiting interrogation of depth, dimensionality and spatial flow. (Resistance). Here colour is a feint, or a distraction at first but part of an overall balance. Or he can use it as part of a sensory onslaught as in Reaching, where one bright yellow seizes the attention, its power contributing to its breaking off mid-stream, while the secondary impressions of raw canvas and paint mixed with cement dust provide such a vivid and complementary sensuality: his drunkenness of things being various, to borrow from Louis MacNeice. In any situation, Gosling’s colour is deeply considered and consistently pre-digital.
Let us finally note his keen awareness of his place in his tradition and his equanimity in the face of novelty. The viewer is as likely to find in his work the ratios of Piero della Francesca as the textures and expansiveness of Rothko. Many paintings I saw in Chongqing’s university exhibitions when I was a fellow resident featured luminescent pinks and greens, the young artists (perhaps understandably) captivated by the bright world of online games and other virtualia. This phenomenon also found expression in the video installations with which paintings would compete for space. But Oliver, as a modern painter rather than a plugged-in creative entrepreneur or excitable student, takes no view on that world, the positives or negatives, moral or aesthetic. He simply gestures to his beautiful, rough, Chongqing-stretched canvas and says: yes, but have you ever thought about what we might be able to do with this?