Cool Art for Christmas

Dec 01 2017

With only a month left in 2017, the galleries in Oxfordshire are offering a mixed bag – or should we say stocking – of interesting art for the winter season as exhibitions combine wall art and free-standing ceramics, and range from contemporary art inspired by the Middle East to the Nativity with a twist, from the crisp white of snowy woods to the rich colours of Christmas, plus a quirky ‘stocking filler’ or two to serve as conversation pieces around a Turkey dinner.

The winter show at The Sewell Gallery at Radley College is a striking exhibition of painting, ceramics, photography and printmaking by three very distinctive artists. The first is East Oxford’s Jonathan Shapley who employs a variety of media including photography and paint applied to canvas, board and aluminium. His work includes depictions of dark winter trees, against wintry backdrops, white paint suggesting snow, and these pieces are informed by sociological and political concerns in an urban setting and our use of public spaces. Marie Boyle in contrast is interested in shapes, colours and texture with and her abstracted still life paintings, drawn from memory rather than observation. Her father was a passionate archaeologist and so, growing up in house full of ancient artefacts, she loves primitive art for its ‘simple eloquence’ and is a firm believer that ‘the layers, the rhythm, the accident and the suggestion, all have their place.

‘Each picture should become a visual poem,’ she says.

Adding a third dimension, enjoy porcelain and bone china paperclay pieces by Angela Mellor who undertook research in Tasmania exploring the whiteness and translucency of the media and the distinctive qualities of light found there, so close to the Antarctic. Further travel in the bright sunlight of Western Australia then led her to collaborate with lighting engineers on the translucency of bone china and you can see the results on show in ‘Coastal Light’, ‘Spray’ and ‘Sculptural Light’.

Travel from the antipodes to Mesopotamia, the land of the Twin Rivers – and at Hemingway Art in Cassington there’s another inspired pairing of paint and ceramics bringing together mixed media works on canvas and handmade paper by the modern Oriental painter Haider, who was born in southern Mesopotamia, and Lustreware by ceramicist Andrew Hazelden who uses techniques with their origins in this historic region.

Haider uses fragments of wood, ground sand, wire, string and metal in his mixed media canvases pieces that combine stark forceful objects, and soft colours: nothing is gratuitous and every part has its own significance as shapes emerging out of the struggles between the materials. His work is complemented by Hazelden’s pottery which is rich in red and gold, blue and white and has an iridescent quality. Hazelden is celebrating 10 years at his Yarnton Pottery which is also open throughout December with both pottery and ‘Digital History’ prints by plein-air painter Martin Beek.

In Oxford, meanwhile, The Jam Factory’s selection tray for December includes Joanna Billingham’s watercolours and digital images of plant-like forms and shadowed shapes that sprout, meet, balance and writhe a world of gothic fairytales and Folk Art; work by Matt Black created with a process of mapping, plotting and tracking via mark-making; Julie Smith’s quiet and contemplative yet light-hearted art and a personal and evocative approach to the landscape by Rebecca Spicer.

Christmas has come early on Summertown’s South Parade. In the Sarah Wiseman Gallery, you can visit the woods in winter and enjoy atmospheric snowy landscapes and evocative star-lit winter nights in what is almost an immersive experience. Here Daniel Ablitt’s new works that are inspired by Nordic landscape – the woods, mountains, and snow that has inspired countless fairy tales and myth and touched with light and sparkle, whilst Flora McLachlan’s prints explore enchanted landscapes in soft twilight hues with an infusion of magic. For Abigail Reid, the ancient notion of the woods being a provider gave rise to large-scale paintings of woodland creatures and game, their visceral and untamed power alive through gestural brushstrokes in monochrome oil and ink, whilst a small population of hand-made ceramic snow people lovingly crafted by Clare Nicholls in her Oxfordshire studio add carrot noses and coal buttons, quirky hats and scarves in coloured glazes to the gallery’s Christmas scene, the perfect addition to any festive mantelpiece.

Just down the road visit the Turrill Sculpture garden for small-scale sculptures in an affordable price bracket that fits beneath the Christmas tree – dazzling glass drops and metalwork robins, tactile pebbles for the garden or coffee table, and pots and animals all sparkling in winter light. And opposite, at The North Wall Arts Centre from the 5th December, artist Pete Codling who specialises in large charcoal drawings and sculpture is showing new drawings, sketches and limited edition prints in the ‘Christmas theme’. It promises to be more Dickens than Disney however. Relying on draughtsmanship and traditional chiaroscuro techniques to create bold visions of the human story fed directly by the artists own experience, these large freehand drawings are full of narrative references to classical, mythological and religious themes with contemporary subversions, and both political and personal content. Be prepared to see some uncomfortable beauty and visual poems that will stay with you long after this exhibition.

For more political commentary and pivotal moments of twentieth-century history captured in hand-woven tapestries, take a trip to Modern Art Oxford where monumental pieces by the acclaimed Norwegian artist Hanah Ryggen spanning four decades, whilst there’s more food for thought and uncomfortable beauty in a BioArt and Bacteria exhibition by Anna Dumitriu which looks at our relationships with the microbial world, antibiotics, and medical technology through art, with textiles and other sculptural materials. You can see a pair of solid stone lungs and a flock of small felted lungs, part of a series of pieces considering tuberculosis which affects around a third of the world’s population and was once believed to have been transmitted in household dust, whilst a 1960s dress with an ever-changing sequence from the Staphylococcus gene sequences glows bright enough for the boldest Christmas party!

Some good places to see art this month

Winter Show: Boyle, Mellor & Shapley runs until 11th December
Sewell Centre Gallery, Radley College, Abingdon OX14 2HR

Haider & Hazelden: Mesopotamia runs until 10th December
Pennwood House Gallery, Pound Lane, Cassington, Oxford OX29 4BN

Before and After Lines runs until 8th January
The Jam Factory’ Boiler Room Gallery, Hollybush Row, Oxford OX1 1HU

Woods in Winter runs until 31st December
Sarah Wiseman Gallery, 40-41 South Parade, Summertown, Oxford OX2 7JL

Winter exhibition runs until 24th February
Turrill Sculpture Garden, South Parade, Summertown Oxford, OX2 7JN

Pete Codling: Naivety runs from 5th December -8th January
The North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford

Hannah Ryggen: Woven Histories runs until 18th February
Modern Art Oxford 30 Pembroke St, Oxford OX1 1BP

Anna: Dumitiru: BioArt and Bacteria runs until 18th March
Museum of the History of Science Broad Street, Oxford OX1 3AZ

For Oxfordshire Artweeks Christmas Season – which runs until 17th December, with 72 venues to choose from – visit www.artweeks.org.