A Monastic Trio

Three good souls are performing, and improvising, their way through a weekday afternoon; large paintings are taking shape in the barn where they congregate. The trio combine music, movement and the slow application of bright acrylic paint. They address the canvas with gestural emphasis, and respond to one another with alacrity.

For most of the time, they work away unseen, unsung, and unbeknownst to the majority of those in Oxford on this Wednesday. While university Fellows read and write, students sit in lectures, tourists come and go, and the remaining occupants of the city are at their day jobs, these three labour at something with little tangible value. It makes their process, and their product, all the worthier for that.

The painted forms are abstract. The music freeform and dissonant. The dance is expressive and informal. The three make a noise and generate a real energy that can be felt beyond this cell of theirs. I hear it as I approach from the road and it feels like a calling. I push open the door and the mood in this hallowed space shifts, but only slightly. I feel accommodated by the group. A theme played by their oboe player lifts me. Their dancer and their painter may have stopped to listen to the sound of my entrance. I take a seat, feeling self-conscious, and begin to pen notes with an inevitable and unhelpful sense of theatre.

I’m sure that it would have been welcomed were I to break into song, but I don’t want to overstate the blurring of boundaries between audience and performers. There is enough interplay without introducing this blogger as a rogue fourth element. The woodwind is provided by Christopher Redgate. The dancer is Lavinia Cascone, but she too paints. The visual artist, who cedes control, is Mark Rowan-Hull. He too moves, with slow poise, to the music. All three watch one another, listen to one another and vibe off each other.

The paintings themselves emerge slowly as fingers dab and smear, as oil stick drips and arcs. Two canvases lean on walls, two rest on the floor. The pair without oboes are happy to wipe hands on one another and drum clean fingertips onto the canvas. They are happy to embrace stillness and move away from ostensible purpose, the production of artworks, to trace embodied arabesques around the paintings, drawing attention to the space they inhabit. The only rule, if you can call it that, is that the works, at this stage, have limited palettes: two are an infinite arrangement of blues, two are warm explosions of yellow.

None of this would happen without the instigation of Rowan-Hull. This UK artist is many things: a mesmerising performer, a generous collaborator, and an expressive painter. What’s more, he is a member of Oxford University. And as might be expected from an affiliation with Oxford, Rowan-Hull’s work is steeped in high culture: classical music, contemporary dance, and art theory. He is also a synaesthete, so tones of music and tones of colour come together with intensity. This can be seen from the concentration with which he moves around this space, which is both studio and stage.

Kendrew Barn, the venue, is an adjunct of St John’s College. Discreet signage directs you to an exhibition here which has run parallel to a recent conference at the College. During this event, art historians, musicologists and literary experts met to share perspectives on a most basic element of the painter’s art, gesture. But scholarly restraint was cast to the breeze on day two when Rowan-Hull staged an elaborate happening in a St John’s lecture theatre. On this occasion, Redgate and Cascone were joined by singer Maggie Nichols and artist/critic Matthew Collings, with electronica from Dr Emmanuel Lorien Spinelli. It is difficult to articulate the combined effect of these strong presences, suffice to say that one knew this quietly riotous, unfolding event to be Art with a capital A, because it fit into no other category.

Back in Kendrew Barn, the footing is a little more stable. Next to the performance area is a room in which four static works line the floor, with a fifth propped against the wall. Gallery notes reveal that Rowan-Hull’s father was an Anglican Minister and there are a number of his clerical stoles, draped around the shoulders of the 2m tall wall-leaning painting. A vivid luminosity, which actually comes from overhead spotlights, appears to emanate from these paintings’ layered depths. Four works – two high spec digital prints on photographic paper and two hybrid print-paintings on Perspex – bring together rich blues, greens and reds as if in the glass windows one might gaze at in church.

In this way the room sets an ecclesiastical tone which pits a 2,000-year-old religion against the latest developments in machine learning. In a paradoxical move, this show – which is after all entitled Gesture – includes two works here upon which Rowan Hull has not laid a finger. AI-generated clouds of layered colour are too rich for human hand and eye. Stained-glass meets a techno-futurist aesthetic and brings an overlay of staves, notes and musical notation together in a primordial vortex. The artist has briefed a computer to share his raw materials and then given the machine a presence in the resulting show.

One might compare the musical notation to iron tracery, framing gestural fields of colour. It structures the abstraction. Close inspection reveals the written music to represent difficult avant-garde compositions, in rare time signatures and polarising octaves. Meanwhile, two pertinent quotes, offered as takeaway postcards, are drawn from two secular philosophers, Theodor Adorno and Hans-Georg Gadamer. I have neither the scope nor the expertise to explore these writers here, but the excerpts appear to get inside the notion of gesture as a movement that is natural and corporeal, yet also symbolic and even spiritual.

In a third room, exposed barn rafters echo a single wooden seat, which resembles now a solo church pew. A giant cruciform hunk of rope which the artist found washed up on a Suffolk beach suggests a maritime take on the agricultural and nature-inspired works of the Italian Arte Povera group. An old-fashioned, starkly vacant pram, also a readymade, seems a nod towards dada, specifically Duchamp’s bicycle wheel. In these ways it emerges that the primary religion here is one we call art.

Assembled for the contemplation of one visitor at a time they are situated between the churchy wooden stool and a large projection screen where a series of moving images play out. This short reel, set in a large, bare rural homestead, show Rowan-Hull engaged in forms of contemplative activity for a lone cameraperson and, in this show, a lone spectator. The title Empty House Studies, hints at the mood of isolation which the artist acts out. In more than one film the camera opens and closes on him daubing red paint on a staircase wall. It looks bloody, but it might be Farrow & Ball. Empty House Studies offers a silent, peaceable form of the Viennese art movement known as Actionism, but as if Hermann Nitsch was replaced by the composer and painter John Cage.

Which is to say that this bijou exhibition engages with a lot of ideas, a surfeit of references, a plethora of theories. Yet at the heart of the resulting displays, which send the eye and the heart in so many directions, there is a shared performance in music, movement and paint. Redgate, Cascone and Rowan-Hull work away in a wordless realm and summon forces from across the exhibition space, channelling them into the form of paintings which are in no need of an audience, but which bear the impression of a collaborative dedication to art for unknown ends.

Gesture: Mark Rowan-Hull ran at Kendrew Barn, St John’s College, Oxford, between 23 January and 2 February 2024.

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