The first major art exhibition from this eagle-eyed filmmaker - it ain't always pretty, but the naked truth about the two sides of Oxford, London and LA is well worth the watch.
Modern Art Oxford is one of my favourite galleries. I love the fact that it’s right by the Westgate, opposite Christchurch College, basically right in the middle of town. And yet hidden away down Pembroke St, it feels a bit exclusive, an insider’s choice, because unless you’ve made a navigational error or know the short cut down to St Aldgate’s, you’re unlikely to just stumble across it.
I love that it’s free to enter (gawd bless Britain for that), I love that there’s a cool café (below) and and bijou gallery shop (think books, stationary, trinkets, gifts and books – due for a refurb in Jan so keep an eye out).
And best of all I love the dramatic space on the first floor in that huge light, white rectangular room – perfect for adventures in modern art – before the rooms tail into smaller, more intimate spaces.
Penny Walcock is the latest artist to be given the keys to the castle. Originally from Argentina, she moved to Oxford in her twenties with her young son (in fact, she set up the Print Co-operative in 1977 that’s still going strong) and it was from borrowed equipment from Film Oxford that made her first film, so she has history with this city. Her breakthrough was with the triology Tina Goes Shopping, a drama that used real residents from a Leeds housing estate, so she’s always had an eye for a city’s underbelly.
That has developed further with Fantastic Cities, Woolcock’s first major art exhibition that looks at the ‘parallel worlds’ she sees within Oxford and also in LA and London – the privilege and deprivation, sitting uncomfortably just streets away from each other. Shocking scenes in both really, and the idea of Oxford as the inspirational City of Spires is seen through intensely critical eyes of the disenfranchised like local rapper Side.
The Same Road is a Different Road shows two narratives, one by an artist and the other by a gang member – Angel Islington v Cally Road (both places I lived when I was in London, so doubly fascinating for me).
I took my 9 and 11 year olds, who loved the beanbags and the video darkness (and clearly felt an excitement at some of the fruity language) whilst having not a clue what they were looking at!
They found the Big Girl installation, with its enormous body parts most interesting as somewhere to clamber around but I was very taken by its intimacy, the way it filled the room with its nakedness – a kind of stitched, tan-tight stuffed installation that represented Woolcock the girl moving from birth into adolescence.
I often find with modern art that I don’t understand it as I probably could or even should – though to caveat that I actually believe that art is best experienced at this kind of primal level without reading the notes first! Not understanding what’s going on is definitely not an issue in this exhibition, which lays out its pretty facade/ugly underbelly credentials plainly. By the artist’s own admission, Fantastic Cities is not ‘soft’ viewing, but that doesn’t make it any less essential.