ELIZABETH BROWN is transported from Jericho to Jaipur thanks to artist Jethro Buck

Jethro Buck’s Freefall at Art Jericho is an exhibition which compellingly winks at the Oxonian observer, belying the global origins of its sources.

On an initial encounter with Buck’s work, the influence of Indian miniature painting on his own gouache and oil works is immediately apparent, and yet we find ourselves asking: haven’t I seen that painting in the Ashmolean? Or, perhaps more fancifully, isn’t that that tree in Wolvercote?

This conceit of a few local references discreetly embedded in the wildly cosmopolitan is part of the unassuming charm of Buck’s work.

His works are restrained yet bold, precocious and simultaneously earnest. Before embarking on his MA, Buck travelled to India, becoming an apprentice of Ajay Sharma, a Master in miniature painting based in Jaipur, who with his wife Vinita taught Buck both draughtsmanship and niche skills such as how to make his own paints and paper.

This extraordinary training is the nucleus of Buck’s work; he frequently expresses his debt to his teachers.

In Two Elephants, a small gouache painting on handmade antique paper of 2012, we see two elephants approaching each other in profile, the one on the left the work of Sharma, with Buck’s work on the right.

The two elephants, Sharma’s with a stylised, curly trunk and semi-tangible velocity and Buck’s an appropriately sturdy, sober and yet individualised offering of a respectful pupil, comprise a joyous collaboration.

Elephants reappear in Buck’s eponymous, twin oil-paintings of the same year. Buck’s choice of deep-edged canvases makes these small-scale works all the more covetable.

The elephants, guilelessly depicted head-on as though through a fish-eye lens against off-white backgrounds, have a pure appeal, enhanced by their modest rendition.

They have a pleasingly blunt presence, artless as a GCSE offering, but with the sensitivity of a mature artist. Could it be that the St Edward’s School art department, where Buck was once artist-in-residence, got under his skin?

The pièce-de-résistance of this show is Buck’s Jump series of 2012, completed in collaboration with Vinita Sharma.

These small gouache paintings each contain a leaping figure – Buck himself – inspired by seeing the boys of Udaipur gleefully throwing themselves into lakes. Each figure is an exquisitely rendered pocket of pigment, some with writing in the background or unfinished detail.

Every image seems a luxury doodle. My favourite is a minimalist study of an almost imperceptible blush pigment, each tone informing the subtle variation of the next, including that of the beautiful paper within which the figure languorously falls.

The Oxonian might be reminded, by Buck’s large oil-paintings, of last year’s Ashmolean exhibition of Howard Hodgkin’s collection of Mughal paintings. These are unabashed copies, although they have a sincere voice of their own in their startling enlargement in scale of their derivative image.

Two Birds (2012) is Buck’s version of a highly recognisable miniature, created c. 1610, of two myna birds against a red background. Again, the deep-edged canvas gives this work a voluminous presence, whilst the ‘coloured-in’ rendition of the birds against a red background gives us a real sense of artistic discovery.

Buck’s intimately attuned knowledge of his art is something which the ordinary viewer might envy, but his unfamiliar influences are a great leveller for viewers.

This exhibition is a must-see, if anything because it brings full-circle the fantastical influences of an adventurous, young, local artist with references to a major Ashmolean exhibition of last year.

And don’t forget to look out for that Wolvercote-ian tree, under which a baleful Oxonian cow ponders how she found herself in Jericho – or should that be Jaipur?

Freefall: Jethro Buck is at Art Jericho, King Street, Oxford, until
April 27.

Gallery hours are Wed– Sat 11am-5pm; Sun 1-5pm
Email artjericho@hotmail.co.uk