The artist as witness
Belfast-born artist, author, and Emmy-winning filmmaker, Oliver Jeffers, will unveil the newest work in his ongoing series Dipped Paintings at 31 Henrietta Street in London’s Covent Garden from November 18th–27th. The exhibition explores the central themes of loss and the nature of memory. Jeffers dips the portraits into vats of enamel paint—paint that envelopes and obscures much of the painted surface of the canvas. To fully appreciate the nuances of Jeffers’ process, the exhibition will accompany an artist talk at the National Portrait Gallery. As if that weren’t enough, he also has a solo exhibition Measuring of Land and Sea opening at Lazarides gallery November 20. Here we talk to the now Brooklyn-based artist about the new show and how London has influenced his life and work.
What’s the inspiration behind this new exhibition?
There is a theme of duality in this work, inspired by my interest in how art and science meet. I begin this direction in my work after a series of conversations with a Quantum Physicist where we were comparing art and sciences differences in approach, but how they are both equally valid explorations of how we understand our world. At points in our exchange, I sensed that simple things were maybe being over analyzed, that maybe too much information was a distraction. I imagined a beautifully rendered landscape littered with numerical values representing the angles of the painting, to try and highlight this. The idea being that the additional information did not help us appreciate the view any, but rather, distracted us from it. The Fathom Seascapes came about a couple years later on, when I found out how little was known about the depth of the ocean. I decided to paint a seascape of a specific location, and overlay it with corresponding depths I could find on old sea charts. I used fathoms rather than meters or feet so I could use the word play of fathom meaning ‘to understand’. As the swell in the paintings suggest, the ocean is not flat, but in constant motion, and coupled with our lack of mapping, potentially immeasurable. These works speak to the futility of man when faced with the vastness of our universe.
The two series have never previously been show together, though I recognized the natural fit between them almost immediately. While one signifies the tendency to overthink, the other reflects on the inability to comprehend. As they come together for the first time in Measuring Land and Sea, I hope it will highlight gulf between the forms human cognition they represent.
How is the London show an extension of your earlier series of dipped paintings?
The Dipped Paintings are an ongoing project that requires viewer participation. I fully paint a complete portrait which is never photographed, nor seen by anyone other than myself and the sitter. It is then unveiled to a small invited audience who are the only people to ever see it in full. Minutes later, in front of them, the work is plunged into enamel paint, and it is through the eyes and memories only of those present that the original painting will be documented. The witnesses are asked to recall what they can remember during an on camera interview. A large part of this project is an experiment about memory and emotion, and I am trying to get as wide a cross section of humanity as possible to participate, hence the performances occurring in different cities and countries. As this London performance is in conjunction with the National Portrait Gallery, and I will be talking about it there after, I’m hoping to underline a particular aspect of the project which speaks about the history of portraiture as an art.
How do you find our subjects?
The criteria I have for selection of a sitter is that they have witnessed death at close hand, and can therefore speak from a unique position about loss and memory.
I interview them at length as a way to inform how the portrait should be composed. I am also trying to include as large a cross section of humanity as I can in terms of gender, age ethnicity and experience.
Can you share 3 of your favorite local London spots?
Golden Union Fish and Chips. You don’t get decent fish and Chips in New York where I now live, and I grew up eating them every Friday in Belfast. I’ve searched, and Golden Union, in my opinion, is the best in London.
Emirates Stadium. I’m an Arsenal fan, so always try to catch a game when I can.
The River Café. When HarperCollins was in Hammersmith my publisher would always take me there for lunch. Such fantastic food, and in the summer when you get to sit out by the river is pretty wonderful.
The Toucan is a great local pub in Soho.
The National Portrait Gallery and Tate Modern represent either end of the spectrum of my tastes in fine art, and are two of the best museums in the world. Also, Magma Books is a great art book store. I always leave with my head full and my arms weighed down.
Has London shaped your work in any way?
I have never really thought about it before, but London must have been an influence on my work in some way. I grew up in Belfast, and London has always been the Big Smoke in stories you hear of people going off to make it. So I grew up thinking of London as the pinnacle, the end of the line for having made it. It was here that two of the biggest milestones in my career were reached, in either aspect of my career; flying over to meet HarperCollins which led to a subsequent publishing deal for my picture books, and one of my portraits being selected to hang in the National Portrait Gallery and be used as the invitation image for that years Portrait Awards. I never like to rest on my laurels or really ever look backward about what I’ve accomplished, but these were two important pivotal moments that I allowed myself the pleasure, and the both happened in London. The city has also been a huge influence on my sense of style. People took risks here that they never would have in Belfast, and the sensibility is much more European, without being quite so defined by that, when compared to New York.