Edinburgh-based Jonathan Owen (b. 1973) exhibits for the third time at Ingleby Gallery this summer, after solo presentations in 2011 and 2014.
Offering admission by appointment, the private Barony Street gallery – a former Glasite Meeting House that housed a divergent Scottish Christian sect during the nineteenth-century – constitutes a space of austere opulence within which Owen’s reconfigured neoclassical busts are displayed.
Each of the five marbled statues remain untitled, yet despite their lack of formal denomination, manage to command the space and serve as central anchors around which his smaller ‘eraser drawings’ are mounted on the walls in sleek white frames.
Upon entering the space, the viewer is struck by the great pool of light coming from above which washes the room yellow (on a clear day), filtering sunlight through an elaborate mosaiced circular skylight. This proves one of only two discernible extravagances of décor at the Ingleby, whose otherwise muted parquet flooring and washed walls generally defer to Owen’s work. Such relative stillness is otherwise tinctured by the resonance of a stern grandfather clock in the entrance hall, that reverberates across the expanse of the ground floor. With every strike, I regretted more my veritably toddler-like sartorial selections: an aggressively vibrant crochet top and over-worn dungarees. I consoled myself with the knowledge, however, that I would have perhaps only felt marginally more at ease had I been cloaked entirely in obsidian silk.
All told, an air of the unselfconsciously luxe – a richly monied atmosphere – cultivated by the Ingleby proves an interesting choice of exhibition partner for the purportedly subversive Owen, the premise of whose work is in the deconstruction of nineteenth-century colonial motifs. In his own words, the artist seeks to “subvert and puncture this familiar rhetoric.” One can’t help but wonder how this message is fundamentally challenged by the auricular imposition of the extant antique clock.
There is no use in questioning Owen’s skill at sluicing away hunks of marble as if wielding a knife through butter – it is absolute. His work to prize away the faces of once-great busts is both neat and fastidious. In their place, he fashions chains and balls evocative of the cast-iron shackles and machinery that characterised the period of their original inception – that is to say, a time in which great wealth was derived from imperial trade, exploration and exploitation. Whilst a conceptually noble endeavour, replete with slick technical execution, it is the exhibition space itself that impedes upon the broader narrative for which Owen advocates. The viewer is thus returned to the trite, and quite frankly overdone, question of just how far the gallery is the art. One could be forgiven, then, for wondering whether the values driving the creation of art and its subsequent exhibition will ever achieve true alignment. The quest for this equilibrium remains a path thoroughly under-trodden.
Image Ingleby Gallery view of Jonathan Owen’s exhibition
Image courtesy of Erin Withey