Essay for ‘Present Shadows’

  by Dr. Catherine Oakes.


A Head, a Hill, a Cloud. Oliver’s work is monosyllabic, Scarped, stripped to the bone. The viewer is not given the opportunity to lose herself in contemplating his paintings and drawings because they afford no opportunity for distraction. They are simply the head, the hill, the cloud and so you Watch them and they Gaze at you and there is nowhere else to escape to. So these are brave images which do not shirk vulnerability.

 They are also of course alive, and deal with movement and dynamism and relationship. Sometimes they even seem to present a relationship without even the protagonists who create it. A drawing like Clash evokes soft enshadowed darkness dissolved by a hard shiny bauble of light which shatters in the contact. We do not take sides in this engagement but perhaps note that a Clash can be creative as well as destructive, and when opposites confront each other, out of the fragmentation comes a kind of synergy which is the work of art we are looking at.

The Heads flesh out these more abstract pieces, but we are part of the relationship here, feeling the scrutiny of the Gaze, the bereavement of the Parting, and thrusting our own hand at the Outsider and pushing him away. Shall we pause and talk to the stranger or just pass him by? The Heads do not prompt us to these responses because they do not have faces. But their lack of expression makes them serene, and their smooth round shapes are strangely comfortable, like polished pebbles, and they reassure us that they will outlive our reactions to them.

 As with title and composition so with colour. Primeval black and white may unexpectedly sizzle and explode with a crop of colour. Look at the yellow encroachment in Spring as the coil of deadwood seems to be blown away above like so much tumbleweed, and the flash of bronze across the shoulders in Parting warming up this ghostly figure with a shaft of light. Just the sheer beauty of the shimmering eggshell blue in Scarp makes the whiteness extra icy and the terracotta warm to the eye.

 And texture. I’m writing this in Oxford and am remembering with the aid of images on a computer screen, but I can recall the textures of Oliver’s paintings. Sometimes gritty patinas lurking beneath a layer of slickness, sometimes a metallic sheen which throws the light off the surface. These are not afterthoughts or random decisions but are integral to the life of the painting, enhancing the faces and the landscapes and only to be apprehended looking at the real thing. Lucky you! But texture is achieved in line and form too, and that I can see. The interplay of strength and weakness in the interaction between the bold stroke and the falling away and Drift of the line, or the dissolution of forms where the Cloud becomes rain and where a head apparently dissolves into thoughts.

 Only be willing to search for poetry, and there will be poetry: 

 My soul, a tiny speck, is my tutor. 

 Evening sun and fragrant grass are common things,

But, with understanding, they can become glorious verse. 

 Yuan Mei hints here at the fragile ‘speck’ of the soul, the touchstone of creativity which transforms the ordinary into the sublime. Oliver’s work understands the delicacy of this process and gently suggests the world through the simplicity of the Mountain, the Copse, and the Cloud and, through his faceless figures, our place in it. He does not transform but points the viewer towards the possibility of transformation.

Dr. Catherine Oakes, Lecturer in Art History, Oxford University, May 2008


Seeking Alone Nowhere

 Critic and writer Wang Ling on Oliver Gosling’s art.

 Written for the catalogue accompanying the exhibition ‘Present Shadows’, 2008.

 Today, when an artist puts brush to canvas, it is not an easy step to take; too many masters would stop him in all manner of ways and drown him in the judgements of art history.

Oliver Gosling has also experienced such difficulties, but not in the same way as anyone else; he tried subtraction as a resolution. From the very beginning he has concentrated on spatial tensions, and the expressive autonomy of materials, stepping aside from issues of representation to allow images held deep within the imagination to be returned to, challenged and balanced by the essentially abstract nature of painting, initiating therefore a process of subtraction in which images are subordinated to pictorial necessity.

Oliver Gosling has learned the significance and modus operandi of space through the study of traditional Chinese paintings and Japanese paintings, where space seems to denote power in silence. To the Oriental, space never meant emptiness. It was like a container holding all the possibilities of the actual and the mental. Thus, painting came to be the site for body and mind, object and space, surface and interior, in which the artist had to start at a new beginning every time. So it wasn’t surprising to me that when talking about his art, Oliver looked so like a child, with an honest and innocent expression on his face, whose eyes were shining and focussed on an exciting dream…….as the ancient Chinese said: “An adult remains pure in mind”.

Oliver Gosling has always paid special attention to space. On the material side of his art, he makes full use of a range of surfaces from glossy to coarse or matt and densely pigmented textures that give the paintings friction as well as a distinctive visual character. His vivid brushstrokes are wonderfully energetic and attractive. In conjunction with the rich, full, harmonious and fresh colour, an unexpected, calligraphic outline suddenly appears amazing. On the other side, the mental side, he has simplified the elements of landscape, such as mountain, water, grass or tree, to become pointers for imagination and experience within the space. Human presences emerge only to remain anonymous or be as traces, like fingerprints. The archetypal human being goes through shadow and light, sometimes showing the subconscious psychology of our loneliness, with longing and desire devoid of reason.

Oliver Gosling’s art is not primarily concerned with issues of representation, materiality or direct self-expression. He places himself within the arena of the picture plane, looking for the possibilities of space. When the compassion of loneliness confronts the joy of exploration, we immerse ourselves in a spiritual atmosphere once again. Thanks to Oliver’s art from nowhere, we find ourselves back at the origins of life, where life is just ready to start, and where art could have the purity and remoteness of unrestrained freedom.