Though I didn’t know it at the time, I first came across Humphrey Ocean while he was playing bass with Kilburn and the High Roads fronted by Ian Dury. The band was playing second fiddle to The Who at London’s Lyceum ballroom in 1973.
Ocean was then studying, under Dury, at Canterbury Art School and although he says he was a good bass player, he didn’t enjoy the rock business enough to continue with it.
It was a good call since, over the succeeding decades, he has established himself as a renowned artist, first as a portrait painter, winning several prestigious awards and having works housed in the National Portrait Gallery among others. Then, in the early years of this century, he turned to etching and his most famous work in this style is the Black Love Chair which Paul McCartney chose to adorn his 2007 solo album, Memory Almost Full some seven years after he’d first viewed it.
Black Love Chair is among the works featured in Humphrey Ocean’s new exhibition at London’s Sims Reed Gallery entitled I’ve No Idea Either featuring both previously-shown and new offerings. As the title suggests, the show is a playful and witty mixture of works on paper, sculpture and, above all, aquatint etchings of which the Chair series are part.
He was turned on to etching by Maurice Payne, the master printer who had worked with David Hockney in the 1960s and ‘70s. He took to it like a duck to water even though he admits to it being “absurdly laborious and time-consuming”. Initially, he printed items akin to his popular Dot Books, those sketchbooks in which he recorded anything that caught his eye. These were often minutiae which he then pared down as a starting point in the same way that a dot develops into a line. He explains more here-
Plaza, for example, is a view of New York’s Plaza Hotel from the top of the Metropolitan Museum. It’s from a series included in the exhibition called From This We Can Tell. “I thought if this box was found in five million years time, they’d get a very cock-eyed view of the world we live in,” he laughs.
The world we live in is very much at the heart of Ocean’s work.The Dot Books were inspired by visits to Brazil. “I really enjoyed the minutiae there – bus tickets, road markings – and I thought why don’t I have that at home. And then I thought, well I do have that at home and I’m going to do something about that.” As a result, the exhibition features such random prints as a cassette tape, a porcelain dog, a road sign, a comb and so on, all minimalised in his signature way.
The particular world he lives in is South London and my favourite piece in the show is a simple work on paper called SR Nova, a minimal representation of a souped-up, customised Vauxhall Nova. You can imagine the type – sprayed bright green, with spoilers, lower on the road, no badge, an air horn perhaps. “The car is West Norwood writ large,” he says. “The kind of car culture, and what people do to customise cars which is a cheaper extension of customising houses. I often wonder what car designers think of them.”
So why the fascination with everyday items? “All of these things are made by people, chairs are intimate pieces of furniture. It’s the world made in our lifetime.”
His fascination with chairs began 20 years ago when he was in a hospital waiting room in a state of heightened alertness concerning news of a friend. He noticed a hideous chair full of almost subliminal faux images of Merrie England. He felt the best thing to do was to draw it. From there, his Love Chair grew in which the grossness is replaced with images of fertility. He is not the first to elevate chairs in art. He’d seen Van Gogh’s, for example, at an early age, and he possesses Warhol’s Electric Chair, a picture he describes as wonderful but horrifying at the same time.
Also included in the exhibition are a group of new sculptures, a relatively new medium for him. Blue Cruise and others sprang from seeing a model ship on a plaster sea made by a sailor, a votive offering, in a church in Corsica. He drew versions of it several times. “Then I saw a piece of wood like a piece of rough sea on the floor of my studio and made a balsawood boat to sit on it. And so it goes on.”
I’ve No Idea Either goes on at the Sims Reed Gallery until 16 March 2018.
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.