Tucked away in the Oxford Castle complex is the O3 gallery, whose new show of work by Rachel Ducker and Rachel Owen makes it a key Oxford art destination outside the walls of the Ashmolean. As its title suggests, this exhibition is preoccupied with ideas of change, and in particular with capturing the moment in which an object turns from one thing into another. The gallery even provides a little sheet explaining the rationale behind the title, giving a quotation from Ovid about the transformation of Daphne into a tree to escape Apollo’s advances.
This idea of a human/tree figure mid-transformation recurs in many of the wire sculptures, but Owen’s prints seem to relate to metamorphosis in other ways, making the comparison less relevant. Owen’s screenprints and monoprints seem concerned with the effect of crepuscular light on buildings and trees, questioning whether objects alter as the light falling on them gradually shifts to darkness. It is as if, in this liminal space between night and day, what we see becomes distorted and skewed out of visual proportion: a tower impossibly high, a tree horrendously monstrous and black, almost strangling the picture frame towards which its branches reach.
Owen’s prints are striking in their use of sharp contrasts, as well as shades of dark grey on grey. Owen draws clearly from the sights of Oxford: there are images of old stone steps leading up to an indefinite white space, the sharp shadows leading our eye up the angles of the stonework. One of the largest works on show, a montage of several views of a vaulted stone ceiling entitled ‘Magic Forest’, was a focal point of the exhibition and seemed to draw together the sharp lines of Owen’s prints with the magical, other-worldly spectacle of Ducker’s sculpture.
Ducker’s creatures are very much the product of an artistic imagination, and seem to become more striking the larger they get in scale: one life-size work of a figure seated on a chair deserved a more prominent position in the gallery space. With a work this large, the smooth curving silver wires seemed to turn into an expression of the flesh and sinews of a living body, interconnected in a smooth design. Ducker experiments with the applications of her materials in almost every piece: in ‘Reconstructed Tree’, sections of wood are bound up within a tightly-coiled metal wire framework in the shape of a tree, suggesting an intersection of nature and artifice.
The small space is packed with art: even between the closely-hung prints on the staircase you can spot the occasional wired figure suspended in the air, veiled in mesh or leaping through space. The curation within such a small commercial gallery is always going to be limited by extraneous factors: the grey pulpy stonework of the gallery walls detracted from the stark black and white contrasts particularly in Owen’s work, and amidst some of Ducker’s sculptures at the back of the gallery was an apparently unrelated cabinet of vintage button jewellery. There was also a series of screenprints of a young girl’s face, which perhaps represented metamorphosis from child to adult, but it was difficult to reconcile this tender subject matter with the more brutal, bleak landscape depicted in the rest of Owen’s work.
Nonetheless, this is an innovative and subtle body of work in a gallery which deserves more of our attention.