Catalogue article by Nicholas Usherwood for 'PLAY' :
(Oliver Bevan's solo exhibition at the Royal National Theatre London, March 18 - April 27 2002
Brought up, as we are, on the myth of the artist as someone engaged in a struggle towards meaning in his or her work, it is perhaps rather more interesting, and rewarding, to look at the idea of the activity being more of a process of liberation, more specifically, of liberating what has been internalised over a lifetime, since childhood in truth. Oliver Bevand5 s most recent series of London school-children/playgrounds is an excellent case in point, representing the fusion of two long-standing artistic and emotional concerns; on the one hand twenty years or more of painting subjects drawn from the urban, built environment and, on the other, a complex body of memories and feelings relating to his own childhood and school-life. Here, and for the first time in his painting they come together, to give expression, and.to set free, images of the most striking power and intensity.
His interests in city/urban subject matter can be traced a great deal further back in fact than that point c.1980 when he first started to paint them. In his youth he had had an ambition to become an architect and when, instead, he went to the Royal College of Art (in the early 1960s) to paint, his optical/geometric and, at a slightly later date kinetic work came out of an intense desire, as he put it at the time, for his paintings "to exist as objects in a planned environmentd", in short as objects in a relationship to architecture. Already, too, he had become aware of the way in which the abstract spaces of these paintings could become "an arena of conflict", in this instance taking the form of a conflict between the certainty of the geometry and the uncertainty of the perceptual mechanisms dealing with it.
Later, in the early 60s, with a studio on top of a building overlooking Smithfield Market, which he once vividly described as "like being on the rim of a canyon with tall buildings and narrow streets below" he started "looking at the city as a set of forms and spaces full of manic energy". It was the arena, however, for a more ambiguous, and far more intriguing and ambitious conflict, that of the human feelings and experience such urban settings started to suggest and provoke. And, though empty at first of the human presence, it was not long before, onto this 'stage' provided by the city streets and buildings, traffic and borough engineering projects, people, its inhabitants, quickly started to arrive. "First a pair of legs coming out a pedestrian subway then.. they came right out all over the pavement. The traffic was menacing and the buildings towered over them. I had no political angle, just my sense of being threatened and exhilarated at the same time."
Since then people have come to play an increasingly significant and subtle role in the paintings as Bevan explores people within a variety of urban contexts, most particularly what he terms 'non-personal' spaces - airports, cars in traffic jams and supermarkets for example. In the process Bevan succeeded in imbuing this still largely, and puzzlingly, ignored subject matter with a powerful humanity, developing a rich stream of pictorial imagery which suggested, in turn, that it was still possible, even in an ironic, post-modern world,to create a poetic vision both detached, yet still quietly passionate in character, out of the stuff of everyday life.
Now, with the playground series of paintings shown here (dating from the last 3-4 years), Bevan has, I believe, made another highly significant step forward, adding a new and more intensely personal level of emotional resonance to those human dramas. The starting point for them was a new studio - one of a group of twelve or so that he set up in 1994 on the top floor of Wendell Park Primary School in Shepherds Bush, West London, and used for some four years. To get to this studio it was necessary to pass through the school playground, a routine, almost every day experience that jolted into painterly life a whole body of childhood memories and emotions. He was familiar, too, with the Opie's seminal studies of children's folk-lore, of the separate and distinct (from adult experience) culture of children's games and activities, and of how, in zoological terms they are, at playtime, "wild" for half an hour. Meanwhile, his close and continual observation of their childrend's play also revealed another huge difference to adult behaviour, namely the way in which children, unlike adults, who are generally self-conscious of their personal space and avoid touching each other (something his earlier urban paintings had brought home to him very forcibly, time and again), are in almost continual tactile contact. Girls form groups to dance, play clapping games or skip, boys, racing, fighting and kicking footballs and, more generally, there is a lot of hand-holding. All of this, in turn, however, raised deeper and more disturbing memories and the urgent emotional need to document "a childhood life I hadn't had". It is typical of his artistic generosity of spirit that this expresses itself in the overriding urge he felt in painting them "to celebrate their physical energy and cultural diversity" and it is only in the smaller, more sombre-toned group of works of playgrounds in public parks where the childrend's play (in many cases his own children being the models) is shadowed by the predatory, looming shapes of aircraft coming in to land at Heathrow, that something rather darker-spirited and more disturbing comes into the paintings.
Meanwhile returning to the 'school' subjects, in a big panting like Clapping Song the children, painted larger than life-size, take on a monumental, almost heroic scale which, for all its contemporary immediacy of feeling, conjures up the unmistakable sensation of something much older - The Three Graces of Rubens perhaps or, in its very narrow, frontal space, devoid of any specific architectural location, figures from an antique classical sculptural frieze. Equally in Performance the dramatically massed group of girls suggest something out of a Baroque scene by Caravaggio, the specific reference rather more elusive here but the work itself no less resonant. Then in the smaller paintings - Common Ground or Split Second for example -the quirky placing of the acrobatic, tumbling figures in the mid-ground suggests a detail from one of Bruegheld's great paintings of children at play or even from a Rococo painting of travelling performers - GianDomenico Tiepolo perhaps. In others, such as In Full Swing however, the energy and almost manic exuberance is absolutely of itself, a painting full of such a moving sense of the immediate moment, of this time and this place and no other, that it makes you aware, more than anything else, of the astonishing synthesis of deep personal feeling and subtle artistic understanding that underlies all these works, large and small - in short nothing less than the liberation of feelings internalised over a lifetime made vividly present.
Nicholas Usherwood, editor Galleries Magazine, London 2001
copyright Nicholas Usherwood and the artist