• A small-scale exhibition at The China Shop Gallery in East Oxford blows SARAH MAYHEW’S mind in a big way

Apophenia (checks dictionary) – the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data… am I going to enjoy this, I wonder?

Curated by Phoebe Mitchell and Charles Robinson Apophenia is a group exhibition of small-scale paintings exhibited in the intimate ‘front room’ of The China Shop Gallery on St Mary’s Road, East Oxford.

A perfectly formed tiny Tardis of a conceptual paint-box, I stepped foot for the first time (hangs head in shame, and in defence explains that excepting exhibition openings the gallery’s opening hours are 10am to 4pm on Saturdays) inside the most curious of Oxford’s exhibition spaces where I received possibly the warmest welcome I have ever received in a gallery.

The China Shop Gallery is in the house that stands in front of The Workshop Studios and is an independent venture with the delightful, young director, Jennifer Brown, at the helm. Brown is articulate, insightful, and incredibly friendly; The China Shop Gallery, I realised, is what Saturdays were made for!

For Apophenia, Mitchell and Robinson took a long look at the ‘pin-ups’ on their studio walls, and between them selected eight paintings by eight early to mid-career artists that they both admired whose work now hangs around their own paintings in The China Shop Gallery.

An eclectic combination with an aesthetic that doesn’t immediately present obvious connections, Apophenia considers the painters’ relationship with their chosen medium, their subject and their relationship with fellow painters bringing the viewer back to the title of the exhibition, and the notion of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data.

Having been drawn to the exhibition as a consequence of Joanna Phelps’ striking Trapeze image, I was at a loss as to where to start in an exhibition without a single style or vision, where each artist has constructed independent languages motivated by different ends.

Swimming underwater in abstract waters I decided to focus my initial attentions on the curators themselves and work outwards… Staple sap green brushstrokes dance between the background and foreground of Phoebe Mitchell’s Untitled (Harlequin) oil on board composition that sees grades of bright colour burst through the chequered cobweb that consists of vague hints of portraiture, and a landscape beyond; while Charles Robinson’s Communion possesses a sense of the celebratory.

A varying combination of perfectly placed brushstrokes, Robinson’s masterful mark making creates depth of field and evokes a certain majesty, and jubilation identifiable in other works in the exhibition.

Take the otherworldliness of Mimei Thompson for example, whose luscious painterly works depict an internal world, a vision of an exploration of the nooks, crannies, stalagmites and stalactites of the artist’s unconscious mind – a place from which one could emerge changed.

Not dissimilar, from a conceptual perspective, to the work of Joanna Phelps whose new works, of which Trapeze is one, have been inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and explore being caught between the imaginary and the real.

There is something awe-inspiring and epic in Phelps’ modest oil on canvas; a scale that feels somehow Swiss, yet has the compositional flatness associated with Far Eastern landscapes, in front of which is placed a dangling dalliance with balance that defies the laws of logic and gravity. The curators wrote: “The components are held in a no mans land between painted grounds of translucent brush marks that create a space for the objects to exist.”

However we choose to describe it, there is an undeniably powerful escapist irresistibility about this intangible work. Standing before Lucy Smallbone’s painting, Panel, my imagination became unleashed by Smallbone’s practice and made me feel like a fish in space.

Captivated by the idea of a metaphorical no-place, the Latin definition of ‘Utopia’, Smallbone thrusts the viewer into a flat, matte, acrylic, undecipherable environment.

In Panel this imaginary space, perhaps underwater, or in a place without air, is spliced with what appears to be a collaged scalpel blade, further flattening the painting in a way that echoes art historical resonances of perception as present in Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors.

Other exhibiting artists include Lindsey Bull, Maria Hogbacke and Tom Howse, and while often on the cusp of incomprehension, there are fleeting instances where comparisons can be drawn between the artists. Collectively they present an exploration in mind-expanding intimacy of scale that sees them using the traditional medium of paint as a means by which to communicate their intent.

Bravely empowering the painted mark, providing a sense of autonomy that consequently takes on meaning, Apophenia takes a fascinating look at contemporary painting in this pocket-sized hub of first-class creativity. An exhibition to avoid with a hangover, but an exhibition that will blow your mind like no ordinary Friday night legacy...

  • Exhibition continues until August 11 at The China Shop, 37a St Mary’s Road, Oxford, OX4 1PY
  • Free entry Open Saturdays only, 10am-4pm
  • See thechinashopgallery.co.uk