Review: Mystics and Rationalists at Modern Art Oxford

KALEIDOSCOPE, the yearlong exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of Modern Art Oxford, entered its third chapter on 11 June. Mystics and Rationalists focuses on conceptual art, and on the power of artists to challenge us through visual and perceptual means. From coloured PVC film on windows, to lines drawn on walls; from bathtubs to videos and watercolours, the exhibition encompasses a striking variety of art practices. Although its mishmash of media may seem daunting at first glance, this diversity is one of Mystics’ many merits. Its mixture of sources and approaches ensure that there will be an artwork to inspire every visitor.

While such richness allows for different tastes, the works on display also differ greatly in the effectiveness of their execution. The very nature of conceptual art is to prioritise thought over aesthetics, but this basic notion gave rise to a wide range of outcomes, in terms of both accessibility and conceptual potency. This was the case even when comparing works by the same artist: Dorothy Cross’s Telescope (2014), for example, engaged me far more than her Buoy (2014).

Telescope was fascinating, and cleverly devised in a number of ways. A telescope hangs from the ceiling, pointing downwards and focused on a human skull that contains a fragment of a meteorite. The work inspires reflection on themes of distance, earthliness, the universe, and the human condition. In the responses that it prompts from the viewer, it is both thought-provoking and poignant. The materials used in Buoy were intriguing: an easel supporting a slab of marble, surmounted by the skin of a shark, the inside of which is coated in gold film. It broadly gives the message that art – at least since Plato – has often sought to imitate nature, but its mimetic intentions are bound to fail. It can never achieve the same degree of “reality”. This was less originally and successfully conveyed, however, than in Telescope.

Amy Sillman, ‘Stills from 13 Possible Futures: Cartoon for a Painting’, 2013, Inkjet on paper, 313 prints. Image Anna Zanetti

Karla Black’s NAMED AND GATED (2009), which consists of a large piece of polythene hanging from ceiling, was similarly jarring. According to the gallery’s explanatory material, the work is intended to give the visitor ‘a sensual experience’, and to reflect the artist’s interest in ‘form, scale, and material’. However, I was left with the impression that the work was a bit circular: it provided a perceptual experience, while existing primarily to make a statement about that experience. The self-referential subject matter – ‘this work is about experiencing this work’ – proved neither conceptually challenging nor particularly meaningful.

Two works stood out in their combination of conceptual and visual interest. The first was Ibrahim El-Salahi’s Tree (2001), a simple watercolour that is nonetheless full of life. Geometry and nature, landscape and chromaticism, blend here in perfect balance. The work speaks of Islamic art and decorative patterns, with a hint of children’s art – perhaps the book illustrations of Quentin Blake. Its several layers of meaning powerfully complement its aesthetic dimension: it was both intellectually stimulating and a pleasure for the eyes, embodying ‘the beauty of an idea’.

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Ibrahim El-Salahi, ‘The Tree’, 2001, Coloured ink on watercolour paper. Image Anna Zanetti

The second work that captured my attention was Dan Graham’s video Past Future Split Attention (1972). A seminal work in the genre of conceptual art, the video features two men, one speaking only about the past, the other about the future. This creates a ‘slippage of meaning’, and a tension between predicting the future and recording the past. The man speaking about the past is calm and self-assured, while the person referring to the future was hesitating and awkward, clearly embarrassed and uncertain about what to say.

Mystics and Rationalists truly has something for everyone. The artworks discussed here are likely to provoke differing reactions from one visitor to the next; such is the nature of both the works on display and the manner of their presentation. Beyond its remarkable heterogeneity, the beauty of Modern Art Oxford’s latest exhibition is to leave us to follow our own inspirations.

Anna Zanetti

‘Mystics and Rationalists’ runs at Modern Art Oxford until 31 July.

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