British artist Oli Epp has the ability to respond to all aspects of contemporary culture through his work – consumerism, wealth, mass media, technological dependence, and loneliness – this criticism is almost completely disguised by layers of neon strokes and supernatural façade. Vanessa Murrell visits the artist in his central London-based studio prior to the opening of his second solo exhibition, ‘Contactless’, taking place at Richard Heller Gallery, LA, United States. Words by Vanessa Murrell
Oli and I first met two years ago, in the same studio space, which happens to be a converted office in central London. By that time, Oli was getting ready for his first solo show and his art residency debut. It was in early November 2017, and he was wearing his signature cap and vertically striped brown and black trousers. “We can adorn ourselves with brands and signifiers but yet remain anonymous,” he said. “I want to use the way that painting deals with surface to bring out the superficiality of contemporary consumer culture”. When I visit his 4th floor space now, it’s a sunny afternoon in mid- winter, one of the hottest February days on record in Britain. Oli is wearing a white and purple fluffy hoodie and platform shoes, which he hopes not to look to ‘silly’ on. We are chatting over fruit shoots and serpent sweets about 90s classic snake videogames, neo noir lighting, and why seeing is no longer believing. He caught me grabbing another candy from the desk; he was about to do the same.
Standing amongst his new body of work, one wonders about the peculiar characters they portray, from a deep detoxed personage to a plastic perfect sunbathing sexpot. “I am an active abuser of sun beds myself,” he says, when I ask whether he sees himself reflected in his own works. Artificial colours glare from every piece – a cloud of purple haze against a cosmic blue lantern light; a ‘fat fuck’ warning on a red computer screen alongside an acidic green glow-in-the-dark star sticker; a hygienic turquoise palette freshens up the bathroom; a purple tint spices up a moment of intimacy; midnight stars gloom a runner’s vision in the dark; a green cucumber pre-shower masquerade. But the Technicolor wonderland o f seemingly flawless tonal setting belies a deeper sense of disturbance and absorption. The fact is, there is ceaseless cultural and consumer paraphernalia that comes with surviving in our digital age. Look more closely and there is a smartphone triggered suicide, the helpless overindulged, someone sealed off in their own sexual encounters behind opaque VR goggles, an obsessive-compulsive cleaning disorder processed through an inability to feel or touch, a bionic runner, a prolonged dependence to ultraviolet radiation and facial masks, leading to an enhancing of temporary self-esteem, a guilty over exposure to e-cigarettes, a suspiciously invigilated cash machine, a demanding religious figure seeming to lead a significant announcement.
For his upcoming solo show in the States, both ‘Contact’ and ‘Less’ are Epp’s twin fixations, in which the artist remarks that the consumerist products that we crave for are just another form of self-destruction. Here, Epp invites us to an alienated land of uncertainty, where lost souls have left behind much of the human tactility that was once taken for granted, and are hopelessly trying to grasp onto anything for a sense of satisfaction. There is a twisted unease in the very deliberate blankness on the faces of the fabricated characters that Epp depicts. Even without facial expressions, one feels enabled to transfer their own identity to them. This unearthly realm is not far from the one we live in, a place where human interaction has been reduced to keyboard and screen inputs, where life is processed through filters, and communication is now largely reduced to atomised messaging and hyper-curated aesthetics. With a current count of 16.5k Instagram followers, the artist has nowhere to hide; he is both an aggressor and a victim of the malaise of modern life, a place where we are connected 24/7 and are therefore continually interrupted by the ding and buzz. Where many of us have become addicted to our smartphones, and our self-esteem has become intrinsically linked with the number of likes, re-tweets and followers we have. Poisonous absorption has become our new drug.
The dangerous disjoints between real life and fantasy are further highlighted by the artist’s meticulous airbrush process, where he removes any evidence of human mark - making from each of his works, and therefore it is practically impossible to tell what is ‘real’ and what is altered, constructed and mutated. Each work is immaculately crafted, often starting with rough sketches which turn into intricate photoshopped layers that the artist then, almost mathematically, translates onto the canvas with small slips of improvisation, so that the final image lies somewhere between a stage-set and painting. Their crisp white flatness makes me think about how one could easily label these works as ‘anti-painting’.
As the artist offers me to share London’s views with him in the rooftop of his studio block, which I must admit, wasn’t an easy task to get to... he shows me a graphic reading on his phone, which indicated the ups and downs of a recent personality test he undertook in a Church in Copenhagen, where instability, depression and nervousness were highly pointed out. I had no idea that they conducted personality tests in churches nowadays, I tell him. “I enjoy putting myself into strange scenarios and navigating through them” he mentions. “I went there out of interest, for research purposes, and found that the therapist dissected me as if she knew me. She mentioned that due to my results, I would never come back.” But, he follows with a laugh, “A couple of days later, we bumped into each other in the street, and it was haunting”.
Funnily enough, after we speak, I find myself looking at a painting that incorporates an enlightening blue halo, an elevated diamond cross and a seemingly conservative lady who’s spreading a message under a ‘Scientology’ sign. For those of you who are not aware of Scientology, it is a movement that was formed in 1952 (according to my Wikipedia research) and has been subject of a number of controversies, such as that of being both a cult and a commercial enterprise, being actor Tom Cruise one of it’s main advocates. Bizarrely, his representation of the ‘Scientology’ term almost mimics the impeccably glamorous ‘Hollywood’ sign. It is this interweaving between memory and fiction that has allowed the artist to find humour in the most peculiar situations. But it is not the first odd experience the artist has encountered within the past months: his flat was broken into and all they stole were his iPad and cigarettes, and that explains his symmetrical painting “Security Theft”. As he experiences circumstances in life, his figures often follow a similar route. In this case, two governmentally looking criminals are tampering with an ATM machine, under a loud green light. I suppose this work highlights our own unease with consumer products and the artist’s cynical view of colourful, shiny things. It is about crashing into the reality of living in the 21st century, through the mimicking of activities from what seem as both subhuman and super human characters, whom articulate the pain of the mundane through their bold and saturated cyborg mystique.
Oli Epp’s exhibition at Richard Heller Gallery, Los Angeles, USA, continues until 27 April; http://www.richardhellergallery.com/
courtesy OLI EPP
words VANESSA MURRELL
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