There is an interesting split in Humphrey Ocean RA: he often wears strong colour and has an optimistic disposition, yet he frequently paints grey scenes of post-war suburban buildings many people would overlook as, well, dull. This is particularly evident in his current exhibition in the glorious medieval chapel and buildings of Jesus College, Cambridge (until 8 December).
When I asked him about what I saw as a divide, he failed to recognise it. He is, he said, painting the world around him: ‘I am painting the world made by my post-war generation, the Bauhaus-influenced modern buildings, the hope for a brave new world.’ Perhaps these hopes – given the state of many of these suburban buildings – have not been realised. But perhaps, he imagines, they are filled with all manner of exciting and illicit activity, as in his painting ‘Neighbour’s Wife’ or the telephone exchange building he titles ‘Adultery’. But it is not for Ocean to say. He paints these buildings dispassionately, refuses to judge their aesthetic quality and invites us to bring our own meaning.
I was struck in particular by Ocean’s painting ‘Saint’ hung in Jesus College Chapel – part abstract, part figurative, full of fine brushwork and a burst of bright colour, it has a kind of spiritual quality in contrast to what I see as the more prosaic subjects of his other paintings. But Ocean brings me down to earth. ‘Both saints and highways are manmade constructs – I am not making a distinction. I am painting things we have created. I have called the show “Here and There” because I hope the viewer will look from here to there, from the white van to the saint, and draw their own conclusions.’
‘Here and There’ is part of the impressive contemporary art exhibition programme at Jesus College run by Dr. Rod Mengham. It usually focuses on sculpture and there are many contemporary sculptures dotted about the grounds by the likes of Antony Gormley RA, Barry Flanagan RA, Phillip King RA and the Chapman brothers. Ocean has responded to this context by hanging his paintings in a ‘sculptural’ way on freestanding walls in the chapel. In the rooms of the college he has fixed them to the historic half-timbered walls to create an interesting contrast and remind us that all architecture, like all art, was modern once.
A visit to Jesus College is a treat, but if you miss Ocean’s show here, never fear. He will be showing 'Now and Then', a small display of work from 1973 to the present, alongside an exhibition of sculptures from the British Council Collection at Sidney Cooper Gallery, Canterbury (26 January - 3 March 2012).