I first came across Oona’s work in 2003 when reviewing a four-strong all women show for Contemporary, entitled ‘Uncanny Tales’. The exhibition launched in Arnhem (NL), at De Buytensael. Showing alongside Paula Rego, Ana Maria Pacheco and artist Macelle Hanselaar, Oona was in good company.
I would have been in my early 20s, so likely feeling pretty nervous setting off on my own, not knowing quite what to expect and not knowing anyone at the other end other than Marcelle whom i’d been lucky enough to meet on studio visits in London. However, little did I know that the overwhelming warmth of Oona Grimes would be there to greet me, to settle me down, and aid with focusing on the job in hand. Both Oona herself and her work instantly caught my attention, and created a lasting impression.
Some years passed, and then a way down the line I found myself in contact with Danielle Arnaud, visiting the Tatton Biennial and once again finding myself in the presence of Oona’s work. Like Oona herself, her work is instantly engaging, refreshingly honest and unpretentious, playful, whilst being equally complex in its many layers and reference points. Above all it is compellingly human.
Although the inspiration for Tall Tales came from two artists’ whose works aren’t exhibition as part of the touring exhibition, Sophie Calle and Yayoi Kusama, I can honestly say that when starting to discuss the artist selection for Tall Tales with Co-Curator Elizabeth Wewiora, Oona was at the top of the list. Her practice for me, in part, informed other decisions to come. Having first experienced Oona’s work in the home of Dutch gallerists Hank Gulickx Burg and Harry Burg Gulickx, where Freud’s heimlich (homely) and unheilich (unhomely) permeated, it felt fitting to be able to introduce it to the Freud Museum and Freud family home in particular.
In London Oona presented a range of work, installed and making interventions right across the Freud Museum, – exhibition space, Anna Freud’s room, hallway and in and around the famed Freud desk and couch housed in Sigmund Freud’s study.
The exhibition space at the Freud Museum, and Anna Freud’s room played host to Oona’s recent work, including a three double page spread from Flann’s Architectural Digest– a series of 18 hand cut stencil drawings sprayed onto black paper, emulating analogue film, as well as a series of directly related book works. The brightly coloured imagery in the larger-scale works and book works are set off against a deep field of black. This creates the illusion of three-dimensionality, digital pixellation and surface. The body of work began as a book of protective spells: a plundering of Swedenbourg, Flann O’Brien and The Egyptian Book of the Dead. Characters fence their way through an illusionistic portrayal of architecture and the creatures that haunt the facades and hoarding boards, the film & theatre flats. Oona, in a recent blog for Big Issue North, speaks of these works as so,
‘Pogoing off Freud’s theory of screen memories and my mis-memories of a childhood summer on the set of John Huston’s Freud: The Secret Passion, cocktail shaken with my love of Flann O’Brien’s badly behaved language, the drawings are in conversation with a tribe of clay things.’
Oona’s Clay Things found their way into some of the most impossible spaces of the museum, including a choir of potatoes that infiltrated Freud’s desk and toes n’ toast that found their way into Freud’s collection of Egyptian sculptures and the study’s bookshelves. Her works in clay are predominantly based on simple shapes which explore the most basic of ceramic processes, speaking directly to the work of others exhibiting as part of Tall Tales, for example Sarah Forrest and her video piece The Pot or Laure Provoust’s Wantee Fountain. Shown alongside Oona’s drawings, her Clay Things are a celebration of the absurd and an ongoing series of parallel worlds, cerebral pieces yet grounded in their materiality and the process of making.
To our delight Oona and her work made themselves at home at the Freud Museum. Following tradition, where Oona likes to spend time with and in an exhibition, at the Freud Museum she hosted John Huston’s film set Sundays. Creating a facsimile of the original film script for Huston’s biopic, Freud: The Secret Passion and asking Nick James, editor of Sight & Sound, to write a review as if it was a new release, this, a reproduction of the poster and Oona herself spent many Sundays ‘on the couch’ talking to visitors to the museum over the exhibition period.
Of her time in London, Oona writes,‘I loved the unexpected conversations with invited artists, visiting psychoanalysts, tourists and school children, kind of pinging off the work but not aimed at it directly.’
Not wanting to break tradition, Oona has spent an extended period in Rochdale installing her work and into the opening weekend. She has become literally part of the tour and integral to making Tall Tales what it is. Her works feel and look very different in the larger and more formal museum and galleries of Touchstones Rochdale, gaining a new life, whilst creating the same level of intrigue and mischief as in London.
It is no surprise that in Oona’s Big Issue North blog she writes,
‘The best bits are the practical bits – the amazing new friendships with the gallery staff, the installers, cleaners, curators, the other artists. How to get in early, negotiate transport, and where to get the best coffee.’ …
Oona herself is full of stories. She, like her work, makes connections, brings them, and people together, everywhere they and she goes. Although not directly biographical, multiple fictions being at play in her work, Oona’s practice clearly draws upon her life experiences, people and conversation.
I get the impression Oona is a first hand girl, a people person, a let me look at you and see the whites of your eyes person. I like that. She is concerned with life and death, and everything in between, the ‘human condition’. Quoting her again, perhaps this sums things up, ‘
The drawings are an investigation into language, beginnings & ends of it, learning & losing it. Clay is the in-between bit – the instinctive making-ness that fills in the gaps. I find I cannot name the clay things in the way I name my drawings. ‘Must a name mean something?’ Alice asked doubtfully. ‘Of course it must,’ Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: ‘my name means the shape I am — and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.’
I imagine the sparks will fly and magical connections will be made when Oona arrives in Glasgow. I anticipate when she gets together with the team at Glasgow Women’s Library and the many amazing characters running the show there, conversation will flow, as also likely will tea. We are certainly experiencing the pleasure of working with an incredibly talented and dedicated artist, and myself, the Tall Tales team, artists, venues and partners have all gained a collaborator and friend!
Helen Wewiora, Tall Tales Curator