A healthy artistic diet

Virgin Oil is a collection which has been squeezed from the young bones of artists of individual talent. Matthew Valentine skids into the East End and hits the show

Six artists have been brought together for the Virgin Oil exhibition, now running at The Old Music Hall on Brick Lane in London’s East End. By happy coincidence their work fits together to provide a consistent view of a slightly unhinged world.

Peter Harris, director of organiser Uncle Grey Presents, created the first paintings to greet viewers on arrival. These include a selection of laughing heads, which communicate different moods through their laughter style. There is a shy giggler, a patronising chortler and a sly chuckler. And a man who looks as if he has been hit on the head. “Actually, that’s not really a laugh at all,” says Harris.

He has also painted unnamed famous people, among them the man standing behind Jack Ruby in the famous photograph of Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination, and the Vietnamese soldier seen in newsreel footage executing his prisoner with a pistol. The faces are painted alone, taken out of their usual context, yet they retain some of their original force because of the expressions on show. They take on a surreal nature because the motivation behind the expression has gone. Harris admits a fascination for the public personae people present.

David Rayson’s pencil drawings of his native Wolverhampton, with the details intact down to styles of brickwork and net curtains, are instantly familiar to anybody who has been to an anonymous suburb. But homely details are juxtaposed with a total absence of people and an abnormal level of cleanliness. The images are tilted into scenes from a Black Country remake of The Stepford Wives.

Saron Hughes, a sculptor from the Royal College of Art, has contributed a set of postcard-sized images about the false sense of idealism inherent in taking a holiday. Hughes has taken pictures from travel agents brochures and re-photographed them from different angles, adding areas of darkness and light and pulling horizons forward. The result is a feeling of claustrophobia, of sandy beaches rushing up to greet you like a blow to the head.

Sculptor Jonny Moore has brought along The Incredible Man. Dumbstruck by a blinding fluorescent orange light, this technician stands aghast as though about to be beamed up by aliens. Or perhaps he has seen Theo Sykes.

Sykes wrote his own non-religious mantra, on display at the exhibition, and had it printed on to hundreds of flyers. He handed these out in the street to confused shoppers, and later collected those discarded on the floor to see what had happened to them. The collected and battered sheets are on display, together with a colour photocopy montage of pictures taken as the artist handed them out to hurried passers-by. “He’s a quiet guy. It was probably torture for him,” says Harris. Some might contend that it’s good to see artists being tortured again. Judging by Sykes’ facial expression on the montage, he does indeed suffer for his art.

Bedwyr Williams, who works at the Ministry of Agriculture, uses his art as relief from an apparently routine job, says Harris. “Bedwyr is basically quite a tense individual,” says Harris, amiably. Bearing in mind that to many artists this is a compliment, it is hard to disagree.

There is plenty of dark humour throughout the exhibition. It may well be full of tense people. But they make you feel at home.

Virgin Oil is at The Old Music Hall, 152c Brick Lane, London E1. Until 20 December.

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