Dealing with new technologies through the medium of paint.
In artist Oli Epp‘s works, blank figures, animals, objects, and common brands blend together. His blown-up characters with no apparent facial features allow the viewers to project themselves – from a sexually excited sunburnt figure in “Aftersun” (2017) to a playful dog depicted in his “Biggest Stick” (2017) – Epp’s anonymous figures portrayed without human attributes yet adorned with multiple brands and signifiers provide a scope to our inner self. With his first solo show coming ahead in May 2018, Epp has much to say about how he applies real and unreal elements to his works and deals with new technologies through painting.
You have previously mentioned that your uncle was a Canadian sculptor. Given your uncle made such 3D works, are your flat works a rebellion against that?
I never really thought about it. Although my paintings are flat, they have these moments of realism, where I’m painting objects as though they were hovering on the surface. People sometimes mistake the painting to be the actual object I’m depicting, so I think there’s a sculptural element to my work. I like playing around with these optical illusions, and the tensions between object and painting.
What were your motivations to decide studying art in London?
I wanted to find my own voice and become a better artist. I got into City & Guilds of London Art School, a really special place. There were only 13 students in my year group, so I had a lot of intense one on one tutorials with my tutors; a truly amazing working environment.
You started your degree making very realistic portraits of yourself. How did you develop into making a figurative-abstraction?
My realistic portraits got slammed in all of my crits at art school, so it was only natural for me to progress from there. So, it happened organically. I don’t believe artists can just begin at abstraction, I think it’s somewhere you get to over time. My peers and tutors seemed to enjoy the freshness of my drawings. These make up the backbone of my latest paintings.
British artist Dale Lewis has served as a mentor for you in many aspects. Could you expand on your mentors and what you have learnt from them?
As a recent graduate the difficulties I faced were principally understanding the business side of the art world. When I graduated I hit the ground running, I was immediately presented a lot opportunities, that meant I had much to learn about everything outside of my studio practice. So I think it’s a big challenge for emerging artists to know which way to turn when dealing with galleries, collectors and curators. I’ve been so blessed to have a few great mentors who are looking out for me. Since Dale Lewis came to my studio in March 2017 we’ve kept up a critical dialogue around my work and his guidance has been invaluable to me as a painter. I’ve called him up on a couple of occasions in a panicked state, needing a second pair of eyes… Danny Lamb, Associate Director at Rod Barton, has also been my go-to-guy with helping me navigate the gallery scene and curator network. He first explained to me the importance of placing works in good collections rather than taking the first offer that presents itself.
Your influences come from artists Piero della Francesca through to Austin Lee as well as the likes of Juan Bolivar and Phillip Guston. Could you expand on your artistic influences? Have they enriched you in terms of colour, subject, or composition?
Those are four great names but only four of hundreds. I’m constantly looking at art, whether that be online or in galleries. However I reflect a lot on my daily encounters, everything from colour combinations, situations that makes me chuckle, or compositional structures of a painting or advertisement. I’m borrowing left right and centre. Always learning, and always thinking.
You have been involved in panel talks in relation to ‘emerging art’ and ‘humor’. Has sharing your work with other artists and the general public helped you develop or understand your practice?
Absolutely, it’s important to me to be engaging in discussions around my work. Having that constant critical dialogue is what makes me a better painter.
Your technique when proceeding to painting a work leaves little or no margin for error. You start with sketches and then transform them into a collage on Photoshop before you start to paint them on canvas. Could you expand on your process? How important is planning for you?
There’s a narrow margin of error, however I’m always reassessing, and making adjustments. No painting is strictly faithful to the original idea or sketch.
Your figures have no facial features yet are instantly recognisable due to their clothes, brands or surrounding objects. Do you see all of your cartoons as a continual self-portrait exploration?
One of the first paintings I made with this featureless character was a self portrait. That painting was instrumental to the form of my figure.
Most of your paintings have a nostalgic feel to them, as if this blown up cartoon is trapped into being part of an alienated world with not much human interaction. Do you always have a dark or nostalgic twist into what at first glance seems a ‘funny’ ‘humorous’ or ‘joyful’ painting?
I think it’s true that my work deals with the sense nostalgia as well as dark humour, but these two things are not mutually exclusive. I’m not sure that my cartoon character in its alienated world devoid of human interaction is how I’m approaching that nostalgia. However, I understand that the blank faces allows people to project themselves onto that character.
Your subjects include mass media, consumption, everyday existence, identity, and digital transformations amongst others. What other themes do you explore within your works?
You’ve given a pretty comprehensive list. But what’s interesting to me is how to deal with these themes through the medium of paint. All of them are very contemporary concerns which implicate new technologies, yet I am choosing to work in a more historic medium. What connects all of these themes for me is the surface. Painting has always wrestled with truth and illusion, both in material and concept; for instance, the trompe l’oeil of Renaissance painting versus the material honesty of Pollock’s drip paintings. The way in which we assemble our own sense of identity in the digital age is a conflation of our online constructs and our offline lives. I’m interested in the slippages of these two worlds, so my paintings assemble elements that seem real and unreal. What’s more, I want to use the way that painting deals with surface to bring out the superficiality of contemporary consumer culture: we can adorn ourselves with brands and signifiers but yet remain anonymous.
Social media has had a strong impact on your work and yourself as an artist. You have participated in Instagram ‘takeovers’ or Instagram ‘interviews’ and even met other artists and develop a friendship via this social media. How important for you is to use this tool in terms of expanding your practice?
I actively started using Instagram in December of 2016 as a professional tool to showcase my work. Since that time, I have let the feedback that comes with engaging in social media inform the development of my practice. Since my work is, in part, about our digital lives, it seemed pertinent for me to embrace it. I am interested in the way that social media is transgressing cultural and linguistic barriers – emojis, for example. With this comes the need for clarity in a graphic form and I’m very conscious of that when I am arranging my compositions and making colour choices.
You have been one of the artists selected for the Griffin Art Prize. Did you find your pieces worked well with the overall ‘group show’?
Yeah I thought the show was really well curated, and I was honoured to be exhibiting along side some super talented painters. I thought my work fitted well in a great mix of gestural and graphic work. Big congrats to artist Anna Liber Lewis for taking home the crown.
We understand you will undertake a residency in (Es) positivo Madrid in November, what do you expect to gain from that residency and from working in Spain?
The most notable thing from the residency so far has been breaking habitual routines of my work pattern in London. There is a different pace in Madrid and although I’ve been working flat out I have really valued not being distracted in the way that I can be back home. It has also been incredibly important for me to engage with a new culture. My work is very much about observing behaviour, rituals and traditions and I feel I’m being tested by stepping outside of what is already familiar to me. Finally I think it has been most rewarding to share my studio with Arno Beck – a great post digital artist who works in a variety of media – we have been sharing tips and advice and even after only one week I’ve already learned so much.
You are offering a ‘one month studio residency’ in your studio whilst you are in Spain. How did this idea start? What did you consider in Millie Layton to select her amongst so many applications you have received for your free studio residency?
When I learned I would be away from my studio for a whole month I knew I didn’t want it to go to waste as much as I knew how much I’d have appreciated a free studio in the centre of London. The idea came about quite easily because I could simply use social media to advertise the opportunity. I was overwhelmed by the number of responses from truly impressive artists. In the end I chose Millie because I thought her work was fun and I resonated with it. She had a great proposal and demonstrated that she could make full use of the time and space. I can’t wait to see what see comes up with when I get back at the end of the month.
Words by Vanessa Murrell