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Exhibition Review: Emma Dougherty, ‘Phi*lat*e*ly’, at ‘The Vaults’

In Spectrum I, eight long canvases hang in a line. In lifeless cooperation, the yellow gives way to the red, the red to the pink, and so on until we reach and browny-grey end. This is the visual version of that nursery-school rhyme about the rainbow, and about as challenging. Peering at the components which create these colour themed canvases, I was, despite the dullness of the canvas as a whole, reminded of the immense appeal of a beautiful stamp. In the information accompanying the exhibition, Dougherty suggests that elements of her work ‘may evoke nostalgia of sending out your very first Christmas cards’. If ‘nostalgia’ and the implicit evocation of childhood is her aim, then perhaps her pieces are more successful than they initially appear. It was with a childish pleasure that I spotted in the yellow canvas belonging to Spectrum I a Roy Lichtenstein stamp from New Zealand, a rectangle containing the teary face of a coifed woman appearing over the mysterious shoulder of her man. Although the individual stamp engaged my interest, nothing about its context was exciting; Dougherty seems to have grouped the stamps together purely on the merits of their being yellow. Indeed she comments: ‘My advise to philatelists is, if you find a yellow stamp, keep it- it’s by far the rarest colour’, a depressingly dull reason for placing the Lichtenstein on a canvas along side a stamp from Singapore showing a taxi, an old style Christmas stamp, and an etching of Victoria falls which graced a stamp from Northern Rhodesia. Surely such juxtaposition has the potential to say something more substantial.  
But perhaps the potential for social comment has not entirely eluded Dougherty. The title of one canvas, ‘Society’, hints at an awareness of the potential of stamps to reveal and indeed instil the values of a society. Unfortunately, the canvas is a rather weak partner to its title, and seems to be nothing more imaginative than a collage of society figures, Henry the Eighth and Churchill among the crowd. The square of ‘Society’ is, however, an infinitely preferable piece of work  to ‘Flora’ and ‘Pieces’, which show, respectively, stamps with flowers and stamps with fish stuck, apparently indiscriminately, on to canvases, which are much the weakest things in the exhibition. This is a shame in an exhibition that need not be weak at all. Aside from the obvious potential for social comment, Dougherty has also, in her stamp led works, the potential to create images about obsession, about what it is to hunt for stamps, to preserve them and to try, as she does, to turn them into something larger than their individual selves. She titles her exhibition ‘Phi*lat*e*ly’ but there is nothing in it about what it actually means to collect stamps. 
On the last wall of the tea room exhibition, watching benevolently over her cake-eating subjects, are multiple Queens stuck on to a canvas inexplicably entitled ‘Milton’. The multi-coloured Queens – a playfully derivative take on Warhol – have an ironic charm, however a lack of thought as to their positioning again lets the piece down. On the left hand edge of the canvas, two anomalistic white stamps lead the eye through a colourless door out of the painting. Again the impression is of something which nearly works, but needs more consideration as to its composition if it wants to draw anyone’s eye away from their carrot cake.  
On the way out, I spotted a little canvas entitled ‘Jack’. Here, for the first time, Dougherty has swapped tweezers for scissors and cut blue and orange ordinary Queen’s head stamps down the middle, before aligning the un-matching halves to create two tone stamps. I stopped and looked, trying to work out if this tiny subversion had created any interesting effects, which might make Dougherty’s work more than ambient. In the end I discerned that it simply made the Queen’s neck rather fat. 
by Madeleine Dodd 
At 'The Vaults & Garden Organic Café’, Radcliffe Square
Until 23rd February; open every day 10am – 5pm; free 

Emma Dougherty’s work is also being exhibited as part of ‘The Oxford Open’ at Modern Art Oxford, until 17th February.

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