Exhibitions: Etch a falling star: David Oxtoby's drawings of rock dinosaurs are coveted by the stars themselves. Joseph Gallivan ponders their appeal

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, Otis Redding, Roger Daltrey, Elton John, Marc Bolan, even Robert Plant: you could no doubt get a tasteless charcoal drawing of any of these rock stars down at your local Athena store. So why would anyone want to pay pounds 400 for a scratchy little picture the size of a beer mat of Elton John entitled (punningly) 'Mr E Trip'? Or for a few pounds more, 'Jaggin', an etching of Mick Jagger in an orchid-covered hat?

People do, however. At the Independent Gallery in London's trendy Brompton Cross this month, David Oxtoby invites you to take a look at his etchings. Oxtoby, 53, is remarkable for being one of the only serious artists to take on the icons of the rock 'n' roll era in a consistent, almost obsessive fashion. While his contemporaries were important in the development of Pop Art - Derek Boshier, Allen Jones, Clive Barker, David Hockney and Gerald Laing - Oxtoby has spent his life making art about pop music, a field considered unworthy of academic scrutiny when he began working. At the Royal Academy (where you have to be able to draw to get in), he developed a taste for abstracts, but when rock 'n' roll seized him by the ears he decided to try to convey some of the spirit of the music in visual form, and went figurative.

Oxtoby has until now been known for his large paintings, which are mostly portraits showing pop musicians in action - singing, dancing and playing. But although he lived through the period he describes, he was not big buddies with the stars. He works from photos. 'I used to see Jimi Hendrix in the Bag O' Nails Club . . . they all went in there - the Beatles, the Stones, Marc Bolan. But I refused to meet some musicians, because it would have ruined my work.' Working from photos had the advantage that he could make up his ideal image. He has a painting of Elvis astride a motorbike. 'Actually, it came from a photo of Keith Emerson (of ELP) sitting on some Jap bike. I just put Elvis's head on and leathers, and changed the headlight to make it look more like one of his three Bonnevilles.'

Oxtoby is a fan of mixed media, as the one painting in the exhibition shows - a monstrous depiction of a jowly Robert Plant, in multi-coloured acrylics with added scribble, costing pounds 17,000. 'This painting is vibrant, aggressive and tough like his music. Plus you get similar variations in texture. You really feel the weight of the surface. I want people to feel the same primeval reaction they do with rock music, and then perhaps go back for the subtleties.'

There's no getting round it - Oxtoby is a real old metalhead. His favourite music is hard rock (Plant returns the compliment, owning so many of his paintings that's he's told him 'Ee, I have to give the walls a rest]'). Many of the etchings were executed just before and during the time of punk, when the subject's dinosaur value was at its height, but nowadays this actually testifies to their stellar status. 'Many of the people I did in the Eighties were in fact Sixties people too. Look at Ry Cooder.'

But look at Janis Joplin, too, while you're there. His etching shows her singing at the viewer, her sleepy eyes half shut in a narcotic stupor, her giant Rudolph nose threatening to pop out of the picture. These intaglio etchings are printed on deckle-edged paper, which makes a luxurious surround to the close- cropped images. Good enough to hang in any study. The fine penmanship - and he did a lot of work in biro early in his career - is perfect for capturing / inventing the details of every flowing lock in British rock.

If you're still not sure, you might find more of a bargain at Athena, though you're probably wondering, 'Is it art?' and 'Can he draw a horse?'. Robin Hardy, the gallery owner, says, 'Dave wouldn't thank me for saying this, but at home, above his mantelpiece, he's got a painting of his father that he did. And it's beautiful. It's like a Caravaggio.' If you like Caravaggio, you'll love this.

The Independent Gallery, 165 Draycott Ave, London SW3 (071-584 4755) to 7 May (Photographs omitted)