The assumption of being an individual is our greatest limitation
Pir Vilayat Khan (Sufi teacher)
In a world where high visibility, pastiche and irony are the hallmarks of so many contemporary artists, there is something invigorating about the quiet minimalism and lack of ego in David Oates’ approach. All too often, in our consumer society, life and art present themselves as an endless accumulation of meaningless spectacles that lack a unifying narrative. In the layered and slippery space of postmodernism so much lacks coherence.
In contrast, David Oates’ concerns are serious and focused, both painterly and philosophical. There is a potent charge to his layered surfaces, which give a sense of illusionistic, inchoate space that is physical as well as metaphysical. Time and the cosmos are evoked, as are questions of our place within the matrix of the universe. The paintings in the Kiss series are made on bare, sized canvas to emphasise their physicality and allusion to industrial mass-production. Not only are a series of eclipses implied but also a relationship to the body, in the semblance of a spine and the emotive title. The dark red/grey Kiss 8 is an exception to the general run of this group, being made painstakingly from thinly built layers of glazed paint.
In other works, such as the Vampire series, carefully executed circular holes penetrate the canvas, reminding us of the literal reality of the painting’s surface, whilst also calling to mind the illusion of skin or a membrane, of the difference between inside and outside. What is entered through these cut-outs is another dimension, a void; an implicitly transformative space. The traces of paint left on the edges of the canvas attest to the history of the works’ making.
A line or slash appears to hover vertically on the canvas in the Janus series. Though often barely perceptible, the mark seems to float on the surface, whilst also functioning as an aperture into a different realm, similar to Barnett Newman’s zips or Lucio Fontana’s slashes.
History has always been important to David Oates. In the 1980s he created a series of figurative works entitled Prototypes, images of a generic Everyman from the First World War that carried the weight of our collectively fading memory of those catastrophic events. Metaphors of archaeology permeate his spare, lyrical paintings and drawings. In what is covered up and forgotten, along with what is half-remembered and tentatively revealed, he creates a series of poetic palimpsests.
Sue Hubbard September 2019