David Oxtoby

Mingus Deep Blues


Not on display

David Oxtoby born 1938
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1224 × 1223 mm
Presented by the artist and the Redfern Gallery 2018


Mingus Deep Blues 1963 is a square portrait painting in oil on canvas. The face of a man – heavily cropped – is painted as if in photographic negative, in blues and white with red-brown areas at the left and right edges of the canvas that echo elements of the shape of the sitter’s instrument, the double bass. The depicted figure is the American jazz musician and civil rights activist Charlie Mingus and is one of a group of representations of Mingus that David Oxtoby made for his solo exhibition at the Redfern Gallery, London in 1964 – an exhibition that predominantly consisted of those paintings and others of the jazz musician Ray Charles. This exhibition was notable for the presentation of paintings in an environment that included amplified taped music playing by both musicians, something of a novelty that was commented on by critics. Mingus Deep Blues was one of a small number of paintings finished just before the start of the show and so was too late to be listed in the exhibition catalogue. It was also included in the artist’s diploma exhibition at the Royal Academy Schools later in 1964.
Oxtoby’s exhibition at the Redfern Gallery was one of four solo exhibitions that he held between 1963 and 1964, during his final year at the Royal Academy Schools, each of which reinforced his position as an artist with a close identification and engagement with popular culture and music in particular. His first exhibition, at the avant-garde Gallery One in 1963, had set the tone for his identification with jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, picturing him as a rebellious youth apart from the mainstream. The artist Mick Vaughan, writing about Oxtoby’s work for the catalogue, reflected that, ‘If we take a combination of television and the cinema, mix it with colour and jazz, a fairly good guide to his life and art emerges.’ (Mick Vaughan, untitled statement, Paintings by David Oxtoby, exhibition catalogue, Gallery One, London 1963, unpaginated.) The exhibition reflected Oxtoby’s fascination with vernacular popular imagery, but in 1962 he had also completed a series of seven paintings of Elvis Presley, suggesting that jazz, pop and rock stars offered a suitable subject for him.
A teenager when rock-and-roll music appeared in the 1950s, Oxtoby embraced the music and its associated culture, there being little distance to travel between his life and his painting that he conceived as a kinaesthetic representation of sound and emotion. Two months later the catalogue for Oxtoby’s second exhibition at the County Town Hall in Lewes – containing paintings with titles such as U.S. Blue Beat and Looks Like Elvis Looks Like – described him directly in terms of his relationship to pop art:

‘Pop Art’ is symptomatic of the pace and potential of the space age, and its corollary of speed, volume, energy and experiment. It is a virile, lively art. David Oxtoby is 25. He is a ‘TON-UP’ boy, devoted to fast and furious motor cycles. A whole art has been evolved from this activity. Several of his colleagues project nothing but the motor bike image in their work. Oxtoby is himself inspired by jazz, another symptom of the age. He works rapidly and freely. His recent recognition and acclaim have been meteoric and spectacular.
(Unsigned note, Paintings by David Oxtoby, exhibition catalogue, Lewes Town Hall 1963, unpaginated.)

The series of paintings that included Mingus Deep Blues, however, marks a moment in which Oxtoby observed the world of pop, or here jazz, in terms of its position in a wider culture – and especially the meaning of a music made originally by African American musicians being co-opted by a youth culture that was predominantly white. Looking back at these paintings and those of Ray Charles, Oxtoby has remarked that they were produced ‘around a misconceived theory of mine. I believed that during the late fifties and early sixties black American musicians – on gaining popularity – almost became white … And I just assumed that these black musicians lived in a sort of limbo, a kind of negative area, which I endeavoured to express along with an appreciation for the music.’ (David Oxtoby, biographical statement, in Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao 2005, p.439.) Using photographic sources for his imagery, Oxtoby reversed the black and white tones in his paintings, with Mingus Deep Blues using tones of blue rather than black. With this painting Oxtoby elaborated a notion that colour could be manipulated as a way of representing sound – both in terms of his use of blue, but also the red interpolations at either edge of the painting that reference the double bass as well as the hot sound of Mingus’s hard bop jazz. Oxtoby went further, describing Mingus as having:

as big an influence on me and my art as anybody … He had a tremendous ability to disregard taste, flaunting hackneyed musical forms and introducing the corniest of images into his works, combining harsh aggression with subtle fluid forms, which in turn transcended this incredible hotchpotch and became something unique. I was thinking ‘Well, if he can do that with his music, I can certainly have a crack at it through my pictures.’

Further reading
Pop 60s: Transatlantic Crossing, exhibition catalogue, Centro Cultural de Belem, Lisbon 1997, illustrated p.148.
British Pop, exhibition catalogue, Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao 2005, illustrated p.240.
David JG Oxtoby, Works Completed since 1980, exhibition catalogue, Redfern Gallery, London 2007.

Andrew Wilson
January 2018

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