‘We see an ancient white crescent moon against black. He is smoking. He whispers a song to himself.’ So reads a stage direction in David Austen’s new film showing at Modern Art Oxford. Austen’s installation and an exhibition of sculptures by Thomas Houseago form the gallery’s new season of work which surprises us by questioning traditional motifs and materials, and sometimes confronts us with images of terrible loneliness.

The centre piece of Austen’s show is the film, The End of Love (2010), in which twelve figures perform soliloquies to an empty theatre. The artist’s creation here extends far beyond the poetry the characters speak: Austen’s background in 2D work gives the film a strikingly painterly sensibility. At one point, the frame is filled with a character’s growing shadow on the stage behind him, swelling as the camera shifts angle like a beautiful inkstain.

By placing the characters on stage, the film seems to play with ideas of what it means to be a performer – are we protected by the mask of costume, or vulnerable? The harsh spotlighting means none of the figures can hide from our attention, but they don’t seem to desire this – they are stuck and struggling. ‘Please dear, there is a dark hole here where my heart should be’ pleads a young man in a dandyish suit beneath a sign reading ‘The Death of Love’. When Austen himself is asked to talk about the bleakness of this film, he replies with a small shrug, ‘You should see my last one…’

The use of 12 sections adding up to make a film just over an hour long perhaps suggests the 12 apostles of Christ – but there is no thirteenth figure here, and any idea of salvation is brutally cut short, remaining only in the hope of some of the speakers that love might one day find them.

Images of loneliness also feature heavily in the work by Thomas Houseago – a British artist like Austen, based in LA. His monumental mixed media sculptures involve the body in their making hugely, and there is a palpable sense of the pressures of the artist’s body manipulating the surfaces of the work. The oversized Coins (Stacked) (2010) against a gallery wall, for example, were first rolled out as clay onto a studio floor and then cast in aluminium. Their evident weight, resting monumentally in place, is a playful contrast with the idea of featherweight loose change jangling in your pocket.

This exhibition is also the first time Modern Art Oxford has collaborated with the Ashmolean, installing five Houseago sculptures there. Michael Stanley, MAO’s curator, says this collaboration arose from ‘the nature and the content of the work, it really asks for it’ – and it’s striking to walk through the Ashmolean’s Cast Gallery where the sculptures sit next to plaster copies of ancient, often fragmentary figures. ‘With the casts there’s also this snobbishness that they’re not the original objects, and I think that’s really quite interesting in terms of that point of translation,’ Stanley comments.

We can see this translation in the way that often Houseago’s sculptures are intentionally truncated – an enormous pair of legs standing alone, for example – whereas many of the casts are missing limbs, but entirely by accident. Houseago’s work ‘oscillates and plays with and questions those two lineages of classical figuration and modernist abstraction.’ Ancient and modern sculpture practices interact and elements of one become reflected in another: ‘the fingers of clay in Legs (Landslide) become the serpent in the cast of Laocoon.’

Back in MAO, the simplicity of Houseago’s colours encourages your eye to focus on the varied forms of the sculptures. Their shapes sometimes free us from a burdensome sense of seriousness: oversized domestic references like spoons and dummies are juxtaposed with sprawling human figures and harsh, angular masks.

The focus of the works on show is Baby’ (2009-10) a nine-foot sculpture of a crouching figure with a skull-like head and huge, empty eyes. As Stanley points out, it includes both rounded forms made out of ‘thick fingers of clay’ and 2D surfaces marked with graphite and charcoal. The sculpture feels bare, but not in an unfinished sense: we can see exposed parts of the iron, wood and hemp involved in its construction and these only add to the sense of its weightiness, as an object rooted in place. There is something almost ape-like about the gigantic figure with its sense of tightly-coiled energy. Stanley describes the ‘play between the aggression of the image and the title of Baby, and they [the figure sculptures] do have this incredible pathos about them. They’re aggressive, but they’re resigned at the same time.’

This tension between aggression and vulnerability is everywhere in Houseago’s work, and the enormous eyes of Baby seem to bore into you with an uncomfortable question. ‘It’s quite a tough show in many ways,’ Stanley admits. ‘Along with The End of Love, we’ve gone for something really upbeat for Christmas.’

Thomas Houseago and David Austen are showing at Modern Art Oxford and The Ashmolean until 20th February 2011. Admission free.