Event review: the James Oliver art exhibition at Matthews Yard

By - Wednesday 23rd March, 2016

Aliens have landed at Matthews Yard, says Charles Barber

Image by Matthew’s Yard, used with permission.

One of the joys of Matthews Yard is that you never know quite what you’ll find, whether it be on the walls of the café itself, or in the exhibition room. After a recent visit to an opening of an exhibition by the artist James Oliver, I was tempted to slightly adapt an old nursery rhyme. ‘If you go down to Matthews Yard today/You’re in for a big surprise/Aliens have taken over the exhibition space/Cutting us humans right down to size’.

Or have they? And are they even aliens? One of the most intriguing aspects of James Oliver’s creations is that we don’t really know what they are. They could be modern art statues, robots or aliens. Whatever they are, they seem to have invaded more traditional, one might even say old fashioned, paintings of rather idyllic rural scenes. There they stand like curious concrete box-like sentries, usually looking down on the humans or animals below them. These different coloured ‘entities’, as the artist calls them. usually of consist one tall rectangular block on top of which a smaller head-like block with a pair of eyes, gazes down on the earth below.

Innocent and playful, but it highlights our fears and anxieties

The effect of these strange and bizarre creatures appearing in natural landscapes is both amusing and a little unsettling. There is a card in the exhibition that claims that the entities have come from a giant rainbow that fell to earth, and have now been allowed, like intergalactic tourists, to explore the place. James Oliver claims that he is merely the artist asked to document their various travels.

This of course, all sounds very innocent and playful, yet perhaps these strange beings also highlight some of our own fears and anxieties. For me, the representation of small humans being overshadowed and kept an eye on by taller, rather bizarre entities seems to tap in to our concerns over the surveillance society and the diminution of privacy in every aspect of our lives. As the entities are made up of straight lines rather than curves, they also seem to suggest an urbanisation of the countryside. I am sure that artist would claim this reveals more about me than his pictures, as I think his main wish is to amuse and charm us. Perhaps his entities are merely getting out and about, exploring some of the variety of life on earth.

Yet these works tease and intrigue our imaginations and encourage us to make up stories about what they might mean. In the case of one of his model dioramas, they even encouraged me to imagine how such a strange spectacle might have been created. In this scene, two toy plastic horses have had their heads replaced with different weaponry and one has had its head removed showing heads of human children peering out of the opening. This rather disturbing gang seems to be led by a baby encased in a walking robot. It seemed to me that it could have been created by a boy who was into battles then discovered his sister’s toy ponies and decided to incorporate them into a model of some strange story he was making up. Would the small wizard be able to restore these distorted figures to a more recognizable and less threatening order?

Perhaps planets can be born just as we are, but with far less mess

It is this willingness to play that most appeals to me about James Oliver’s works. His images of a man with a box with painted face over his head, and one with a respectable looking lady named (rather splendidly) Madame Hoodjamaflip, sitting in an armchair, also sporting similar head apparel, suggest both the idea of hiding and play. Instead of having to worry about what expression they should be wearing on their faces, they have simply chosen a box to do the job for them.

Other pictures reveal the artist’s fascination with space, geometry and colour. Perhaps one of my favourites is his most simple. Entitled ‘The birth of a planet’, it shows two smaller coloured square boxes coming out of a bigger square white box. Any scientist would doubtless tell you that this is not what a birth of a planet would look like at all, yet there is a certain comfort and splendour in imagining planets can somehow be born in a similar way to ourselves (but with far less mess).

Matthews Yard is to be congratulated on inviting such an interesting artist to display his works in Croydon. Don’t miss the opportunity to go and see them.

The James Oliver exhibition at Matthews Yard, just off Surrey Street market, runs until Tuesday 31st May. Entry is free.

Charles Barber

Charles Barber

Adoptive Croydonian, currently trying to publish a book and find gainful employment within the Croydonian urban jungle. Environmental campaigner, Twitter@rainforestsaver, founder of the Croydon Rainforest Club and of the Friends of Whitehorse Park.

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