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This article is taken from PN Review 245, Volume 45 Number 3, January - February 2019.

Cover Story Rod Mengham
Humphrey Ocean, ‘Traffic’

IT IS A STRIKING PARADOX that Humphrey Ocean, so well known as a portraitist, should have painted so many scenes without figures: the more so, because they often include studies of British domestic architecture or suburban infrastructure. Where are all the bodies? It is not that these scenes are empty of humanity, simply that the people are all hidden. In ‘Traffic’, the emblematic white van has hit the road, in a world that is nearly all tarmac, with the evidence of nature nearly all squeezed into the verge. This is not a representation of observable reality as much as a proportional emphasis on what is conceptually important in today’s Britain, a place where the priority is to find ever more space for the white van man to move into. Ocean’s technique might be thought of as proportional realism. His street lights glowing in the daytime conform to the view that everything natural is redundant. But nature fights back, in our inherited way of seeing it, and that depends above all on the example of art. Suburban streets and the lives passed within them are so well known that we do not think about them or even look at them anymore. And it is precisely in this zone of the over familiar that Ocean finds the biggest story of all: this is the world that we have made, the one that represents us – this is the true mirror of our times. 

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