INTRODUCTION to the URBAN MIRROR catalogue
by Mireille Galinou founder of the London Arts Café, a platform for the art of cities
To be a painter is still one of the harshest professions on earth. In many of London's artists' quarters, the garret, scarcity of money, search for recognition, are as real now as they were in the nineteenth century when the idea of the struggling bohemian artist emerged in Europe. So what drives a painter to paint? What can be gained by scrutinising the development of one London based artist? Can a twenty year slice out of an artist's career make us understand better the life of all artists and more importantly, their decision to communicate with us?
Oliver Bevan is a mature, experienced artist based in Hammersmith whose style of painting has undergone dramatic changes. So far his work has produced two main 'mutations': first the switch from early abstract works to a figurative realistic style, and second, the gradual passage from a world governed by built structures to one inhabited by people. On the face of it these changes seem to fly in the face of the steadiness of purpose we have come to expect from committed artists. But there is more to them than meets the eye.
The urban principle
We need not search very long for the single most powerful driving force behind much of Oliver Bevan's output: the city. We should begin by noting the early influence of Mondrian, an artist who sought to create a dialogue with architecture and the urban scene. As early as 1965 Oliver Bevan wanted his paintings 'to exist as objects in a planned environment. In this sense painting could have a similar relationship to architecture and design as pure scientific research has to technology'. With such notions of 'planned environment' and 'architecture' the artist was already very close to the idea of a city.
Early on in his career Oliver Bevan also described very clearly how the idea of conflict was central to his work and this has remained a constant feature of his art as may be shown here using the painter's own quotes:
'The work is in the form of a conflict between the certainty of the geometry and the uncertainty of the perceptual mechanism in dealing with it' (1965). A few years later in connection with the 'Farringdon' paintings, he describes the same idea in very graphic terms: 'I treated the canvas like an arena for combat in which I didn't quite know what shape the combat was going to take until I got into it'. In 1993 still the same idea is described in relation to the series of paintings of the Westway: 'I think the flyover conforms to old notions of the sublime. It has a kind of awful beauty. I can't paint anything that doesn't fill me with conflicting feelings.' And yet you will not find pictures of miners' strikes or poll tax riots in the oeuvre of Oliver Bevan and you may even find it hard to detect quickly what the artist means by conflict. Let us take a couple of examples from the pictures illustrated here. At first sight Passengers is a peaceful image: we all recognize the state of reliability and stability that bus travelling affords. Bus passengers rarely look harassed but are mostly resigned to the slow but steady pace of what some have compared to a 'vertical' bath. The two people in the picture conform to this rule. Yet that straightforward experience is undermined by the play of reflections on the window, suggestive of a world of intangibles. That creates tension. But, you may ask, where is the conflict in the delightful carefree painting
Off the Ground showing two girls skipping? Without the explanation of the artist we may never have known....When tackling the theme of children playing in a school yard, (the artists's studio is in a school), he was made deeply aware of the gap between adulthood and childhood, innocence versus knowledge. This is expressed in very physical terms, as is often the case in this artist's work. In a note about the series he writes: 'My own childhood was so unlike most of this, which makes the paintings in one sense a lament for a time I never had and yet in another, a quite scientific observation of the behaviour of young human animals who have not yet learnt to be ashamed of their place in the natural order'. The source of conflict then, is outside the picture, in the painter's head, and the work is able to reach a state of pure, unadulterated joy.
I have a strong wish for a well ordered painting. It seems to me rather like a well tuned engine. It's no good having it burping and farting down the road in the most ridiculous manner.' (1986)
This passionate sense of design keeps the conflict within the pictures in good check. In Exit to Edgware Road the worrying discrepancy in scale between the built environment and its human contingent is softened by the central position of the figures and their harmonious blending with the architecture. The tunnel like structure emphasises the dwarfing size of the tower and the pedestrians' vulnerability, at the same time as the man's right shoulder creates a symmetrical line, a perfect echo of this concrete jungle.
Method of working
Oliver Bevan's method of working was well described by Nicholas Usherwood in an article entitled 'The Artist in Conversation', (The Artist Magazine December 1991). Here we will simply mention his reliance on photography for exploring what is rarely consciously perceived by the eye. A good photograph is distracting to him; it needs to be a bad one. Only then will it reveal the eerie juxtaposition of substance and shadow as in Coming Towards Me, the strange play of lines, and hauntingly, the changing overlay created by the BT icon with the users of a telephone box. But perhaps we should finally return to the idea of conflict. Not only does the artist choose to depict tension by focusing on the strange or transitory in our everyday world, (for instance that brief moment when a passenger surveys the street in Platform), but he is able at times to transcend the source of conflict in which some pictures originated. One Way System, the huge polyptych of traffic, was the outcome of the intense frustration of sitting in a solid traffic jam in Hammersmith. In Oliver Bevan's paintings, the drivers, who had fallen victim to outside circumstances, have turned heroes. They are no longer lost in a frozen sea of cars but their temporarily handicapped journey enabled the artist to see them, perhaps for the first time. He becomes as indiscreet and revealing as the fine director in Fellini's Roma. Similarly, Looking Back is associated with the death of the artist's father. It is gloomy and menacing, filled with that 'awful beauty' but the figure is also emerging from a tunnel, winning through.
The stuff of life is woven into these paintings. The artist's imagery is drawn directly from his environment and bound up with moments of frustration, tension, difficulty. It is also our environment: we have so much to see, discover and learn from the urban scene which has come to dominate the lives of late twentieth century men and women.
Mireille Galinou April 1997
copyright Mireille Galinou and the artist 1997