March 2016

In addition to donating an incredible painting to this year's MTV RE:DEFINE auction, Oliver Clegg is preparing for his solo exhibition opening April 9th at Erin Cluley Gallery in Dallas, Texas. Oliver recently invited us to his studio to checkout his new body of work, all whilst talking about pop culture references, getting people to interact non-digitally with his work, and what to expect from his upcoming show.

1. Pop culture cartoon characters, is a theme you seem to continuously explore— what is your fascination with them?

When I was painting the board paintings I was painting children’s toys that specifically belonged to a non-digital pre-internet generation. Quite often many of these toys were Disney - even though I am British born and was brought up in the UK a few characters such as Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse by nature of being so commonplace arose in the work and the choice of subject matter. Pop culture icons were therefore mixed with other less well-known toys that had featured in my childhood and the childhood of others. Following a move from the UK to the America the impact of popular culture become more profound and my work began to become more colorful, using more color and i started to use the mediums of advertising which included text based signage and neon. The inspiration of this new environment on my work coupled with already established interests in the memories of my own childhood therefore now became exaggerated when i returned to making paintings at the end of last year. To me its not necessarily a fascination with them, i see them more as a mechanism in which i am able to balance the culture of generation into which i was born and the digital environment into which subsequent generations are now facing.

2. How did the whole series of balloons come to fruition?

I was actually in Dallas staying with Tammy Cotton-Hartnett, VP to the Dallas Contemporary, a few times last year when visiting Dallas in preparation for my solo show at Erin Cluley Gallery. The first time I stayed with Tammy I was looking around her house at the beautiful art she has collected over the last few years. I looked up at the ceiling where I saw a deflated helium balloon with the writing “HAPPY BIRTHDAY”. The balloon was crumpled but still managing to just about press itself to the ceiling of her high ceilinged sitting room. I asked Tammy who made the piece thinking it was chromed bronze and she said it was actually left over from her sons birthday party. I laughed and remarked at how I thought it was the best piece in her house.  6 months later I came back to stay with Tammy again and the balloon was still there. I was impressed by the fact it was still there and again by its isolated simplicity so decided was going to make a bronze sculpture of the same object that would stay suspended to the ceiling of a place where it was exhibited. This idea developed into the paintings and specifically the idea a single painting of a balloon developed into a more extensive series of balloons - deflated yet managing to some how resist the pull of gravity. The first balloon was in fact a happy birthday balloon but this became taken over by the iconic characters of popular culture from the 80s and 90s - the period when I was growing up. 3 paintings became 6 and 6 became twelve - buying balloons on Ebay, Etsy, Amazon and wherever I could find the necessary subject matter.

3. You’ve got a show opening up at Erin Cluley gallery in Dallas the second week in April that features these balloon paintings, along with sculptural/interactive installation work, how do these pieces work together with the balloon paintings?

For the show at Erin’s gallery I have made 3 sculptures - a neon that reads “LIFE IS A GASSSSS” (also the name of the show), a brass carrot that hangs from a 14 foot metal pole and a disco ball that spins around emanating the word “me” (written in my handwriting) 2000 times instead of squares of light. 

For me all of these pieces firstly share the balance of humor and underlying seriousness that is evoked by the paintings.  Whilst the carrot is somewhat farcical, the text piece tongue and cheek and the disco ball reflecting a comical reflection of the accelerated narcissism of the 20th century human being, they all suggest something more serious. Is life really a gas? Is the carrot actually made of gold or maybe its just made of brass?  Are we just the center of attention in a party for only ourselves?

4. How did the interactive table piece come about?

The table piece was essentially a development from game pieces that I had made previously - a foosball table, 3 different chess sets - and a games triathlon, which I held at Cabinet Magazine offices some years ago.  I was interested in the idea of getting people off their telephones and offering activities that forced them to engage in a human non-digital way. The foosball tables forced players to put down their cell phones in order to have two hands on the table and the game of chess, by the nature of competition, forced the competitor to engage with their competitive urges - urges that the constant presentation of the self against others via social media was consistently fueling. The spinning table was only a development of this idea - taking the urges that technology accelerates and putting them into a human context. Again dealing within the context of communication the spinning table seats 30 people and every 20 minutes the seating position is changed manually forcing the diners to engage with new people and new conversation. I had been thinking of the idea and approached the incredible Ted Christensen, who developed the idea with me into something that worked flawlessly. Without him the piece just wouldn’t have been possible - we have made some pretty complex pieces over the last few years so I am very comfortable trusting him to balance practical necessity with my aesthetic and conceptual considerations. 

5. What are the conversations that people are having around these paintings? Do you see people focusing on the deflated-ness, the characters, the fact that they’re simply balloons, etc.?

At this point the general response to the paintings have been limited as I have been locked away in the studio working on them in preparation for the show at Erins but the initial response to the subject matter is one of familiarity. The familiarity is because most of the viewers of this work belong to a generation for which these popular characters were both prevalent and relevant. The subject matter therefore is more immediate in grabbing the viewers attention than the more melancholic presentation of them as being deflated. I think the approach is in three stages - recognition of the characters, recognition of them being balloons and ultimately realizing that they are deflated. The subject matter is the immediate access point of the work but the grouping of them all together and their deflated appearance seems both to hold the potency of the message and raise the questions.  Why are they all heads? Why are they all protagonists? Why are deflated yet still floating?  

6. Who are some of your contemporaries that you admire, learn from?

As an artist working in different media I have different reference points for different areas of my practice but more than anything I have an overwhelming interest in film and music that is often where I find my inspirations. Contemporary directors who I admire are Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze and Florian Henckel. I love the deep melancholy yet narrative brilliance of Henckel, the chaotic unity of PTA and comic surrealness of Jonze. If I could direct film, I would and at some point I hope this dream will become a reality!

7. You are a recent father, how has having a child influenced your work?

As soon as you have less time in your life you focus your times to work more effectively. Babies have very specific schedules so suddenly my apparently random daily routine has been given some structure!

8. Can you tell us a bit about the piece of work you’re donating to this year’s RE:DEFINE auction? 

This piece should really be considered as part of the same body of work from which the Erin Cluley show was created - a deflated helium balloon of a popular icon. In this case its a variation on the smiley face subject that is in the Life is a Gassss show. This classic icon of 20th century culture appears to be deflating and as result its smile appears wonky and confused.  The painting is slightly smaller than the paintings in the gallery exhibition - the latter being 66 inches squared and this one being 50 inches squared.

Follow Oliver on Instagram

Visit Oliver's website