spray can paintings



Meeting the Marble Arch based abstract painter Denis Bowen in 2000 was a revelation for Osborne, leading to a close working relationship and friendship lasting until Bowen’s death, aged nearly 85, in 2006. Bowen’s tachism and gesturalism, which during the 1950`s, had been promoted both through the radical New Vision Centre Gallery he founded with Nancy Halescz and Frank Avray Wilson, and through his inclusion in the Redfern Gallery’s landmark ‘Metaphysical, Tachist, Abstract’ show in 1957, chimed with Osborne’s anarchic feeling for random and chance effects.

While the younger man’s application of these working methods was geared to the semi-sculptural medium of collage and box constructions, Osborne allowed the influence of Bowen to lead him towards experiments with spray cans and metallic car paints. Following Bowen’s use of metaphorical out-of-this-world astronomical imagery, Osborne luxuriated in free association informalism, in which the physical propensity of paint as an inherently flowing, lyrical medium was fully exploited. Random textural and chromatic effects stemmed from fortuitous stained and sprayed passages. Osborne exhibited alongside Bowen within the `Sharing a View` group both at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol, and at the Julia Margaret Cameron Museum on the Isle of Wight.

While teaching at Ealing College of Art in the early 1960's, Bowen made experimental paintings whilst listening to the music of Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd. The influence of psychedelia and mind-expanding drugs also proved relevant to Bowen's experiments with strobe light effects, with flourescent luminous colours and with a creative synaesthenia between different media. Osborne assisted the ageing atist in his London studio and started using spray paint techniques in his own art work.

Discovering Bowen's haphazard and bohemian living and working quarters at Seymour Place, near Marble Arch, confirmed to Osborne the relevance of his own aesthetic instincts. A mutual interest in the poetry of discarded fragments drew the two together during the vital five year collaboration. Bowen’s ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ of collected ephemera and works in progress was both inspirational and instructive to the eager, younger artist. Among the objects that made up Bowen's cultural cornucopia-much of it junk elevated to the status of trophy-were a collection of plastic cutlery, random scraps of paper found in the street and, perhaps most important of all, an empty, rusty wartime sardine can that triggered the idea for Osborne's subsequently successful sardine cans construction series that proved popular entries at the Royal West of England Academy Autumn Exhibition and at the Bath Society of Artists Summer Exhibition.

Bowen’s use of the spray can to achieve fugitive, almost otherworldly, atmospheric effects stemmed from his teaching after the war in industrial design art school departments. Other informalist influences lay conveniently around the Chiswick corner in the guise of near neighbours Jeff Hoare and Derek Stockley. Hoare's stained abstract landscapes are ciphers of freedom, arenas of free flowing paint dipped into the sea on the Kent coast where the 'seasoned' Strand-on-the-Green painter keeps a beach hut studio. Liverpool-raised and St Martins School of Art-trained Stockley took up painting after serving in the Navy. His trowelled impasto and use of blowtorches to emulate the fumage effects of matter painting wildly bypassed academic or even avant garde conventions, in a way that equally appealed to Osborne's iconoclasm.

With his circumnavigation of the cult of craft already half assuaged by the industrial connotations of spray painting, Osborne later made forays as a plein-airist manqué, indulging subversive tendencies through a spell of urban graffiti painting using the tag DEFY after becoming involved with the international street art movement. The celebrated French stencil artist Jef Aerosol has painted a large dancing figure on the studio wall of the English artist’s Chiswick house after staying there whilst exhibiting and working in London. Osborne’s youngest daughter Rosie, who along with her sister Sophie, grew up surrounded by artists and writers, has picked up the alternative artistic baton and has written a dissertation on the history of French Street Art 'Le Street art en France:un phenomene controverse', which proved a bit radical for her professors at Sussex University.

‘Bob Osborne is a man of good taste! That’s what struck me when we first met: a long-haired bloke wearing a leather waistcoat that welcomes you with a glass of good wine and listens to Pentangle, the Blues and Tom Waits while spray painting collages of Bob Dylan, John Lennon or Mick Jagger. A glimpse at his bookshelves and at the walls of his studio was enough to understand that we belong to the same cultural family and generation. In our veins runs a mixed blood, as red as the blues, as hot as rock’n’roll, as bitter as punk. Bob can do everything, he can switch from poetry to collage, from street art to abstract painting, he’s a living “cut up” in perfect beat fashion and every new step he takes has surrealistic flavour and psychedelic fragrance. I’ll never forget our painting sessions in the most derelict areas of Chiswick, on a cool moonless night’.

Jef Aerosol 2012                   


The dumped and forlorn caches of sandbags unearthed by Osborne in a suburban Ealing street in 2006 were crudely hand painted with cryptic messages and evoke fading collective memories of the London Blitz. These sacks have an arty resonance reminiscent of Barry Flanagan’s rope and sacking installations. The stencilled lettering is again ‘doctored’ or forged’ to imply both humour and menace. The use of statements from philosophical tracts as titles, such as Sartre’s On Being and Nothingness and Stalin’s sinister military Five Year Plan, add a satirical and mischievous dimension to the mundane subject matter and play with juxtapositions of the profound and banal. Referring to the sandbags as ‘left’ rather than ‘found’ objects, Osborne rescues them from inevitable decay and worthlessness by returning them to the street after giving them the newly immortal identity of a photographic record, which then becomes both momento and surviving artwork. In this respect he followed Andy Goldsworthy’s photographic retrieval of ephemeral nature sculptures. The wartime association of sandbags appealed to Osborne’s interest in the Mass Observation movement, public announcements and outbreaks of psychological hysteria and paranoia.

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