The Iconoclastic and the Memorable: an Interview with Oli Epp

Just like the artworks he creates, Oli Epp is interesting, funny, observant and thoughtful – and completely unpretentious.

The Iconoclastic and the Memorable: an Interview with Oli Epp

Unlike so much of the art that’s out there today, London-based Oli Epp’s works are made accessible – and for this reason, among others, his pieces can be separated from the rest. I don't dare tell you his age (his youth will only send you down a tunnel of despairing envy), but rest assured there’s a reason he has achieved so much success in his short time on this earth. His art cuts through the clutter and manages the unique combination of speaking volumes while remaining focused and cogent, both in style and in theme.

His pieces are also assertive, but without the cockiness: Epp is an observer, not a controller, and he doesn’t create art to motivate an audience or sway an opinion. Rather, his work is a response to all that’s going on around him, whether that be the dark hole of technology and screen time, the icons or ‘Gods’ of our consumerist society, un-PCisms, or aesthetics.

Oli Epp, ‘Real Love’, 2019, oil and acrylic on canvas. Photo courtesy the artist and Richard Heller Gallery
Oli Epp, ‘Real Love’, 2019, oil and acrylic on canvas. Photo courtesy the artist and Richard Heller Gallery

From May 19 to June 16, Epp is being included in Malmö Sessions, an exhibition presented by Carl Kostyál Gallery that brings together more than fifty artists with a focus on image-making and portrayal in the digital era. For many of the artists, Epp included, it’s their first time exhibiting in both Malmö and Sweden (though Epp has shown in Scandinavia once before in Copenhagen). What also connects the artists is a radical and expressive method of portraying people, objects and subjects in our contemporary culture.  

Ahead of Malmö Sessions, Barnebys sat down with Epp to discuss not only what’s in store at the show but also what it means to create art in today’s digital- and brands-saturated society.

Oli Epp in his studio with ‘The Minister’, 2019, oil, acrylic and spray paint on canvas. Photo courtesy the artist and Richard Heller Gallery
Oli Epp in his studio with ‘The Minister’, 2019, oil, acrylic and spray paint on canvas. Photo courtesy the artist and Richard Heller Gallery

Barnebys: You have a cool 18k followers on Instagram. What impact do you think being ‘Instagram friendly’ has on an artist’s success today?

Oli Epp: It’s not about being “Instagram friendly’, it's about making honest work. I’m a millennial living in this fast consumerist culture. My paintings are authentically me for the reason that I’m making works in response to my everyday life and experiences. I think you should stay true to your ideas and not surrender to the algorithm. Although [my artworks] have a bright pop aesthetic, underneath their surface often lies a darker, more sobering narrative that isn’t on par with Instagram’s ethos – I’ve had paintings removed due to nudity and un-PC topics.

You say that your paintings are about your everyday experiences and observations, and that they’re autobiographical. Is there anything in particular that inspires you or catches your eye?

My last body of work more directly responded to our relationship with technology and consumption, as well as the battles around those themes. I tend to gravitate towards tragedy and ironies but also characters and situations which are underrepresented in art history, whether that be germaphobes, internet trolls or paralympians.

Oli Epp, ‘The Germaphobe’, ‘Security Theft’ and ‘10 Minutes (sunbed)’ all 2019, oil and acrylic and spray paint on canvas, part of ‘Contactless’ at Richard Heller Gallery. Photo courtesy the artist and Richard Heller Gallery
Oli Epp, ‘The Germaphobe’, ‘Security Theft’ and ‘10 Minutes (sunbed)’ all 2019, oil and acrylic and spray paint on canvas, part of ‘Contactless’ at Richard Heller Gallery. Photo courtesy the artist and Richard Heller Gallery

You touch on consumerism and commercialism: your works are riddled with iconic brand logos and patterns. What kind of outlook do you have on capitalism, or what kind of wisdom are you trying to impart within your works?

I understand that there is a precedent for that kind of work, but unlike [William] Hogarth and other artistic satirists, I don’t make artworks to moralize a nation. As an artist, I’m interested in portraying culture and society today without enforcing my point of view. I’m a silent observer depicting the now. My paintings are social and political but void of a stance.

Would you consider your works iconoclastic?

Ha! It wasn’t until The Los Angeles Times featured me in a thoughtful article (titled ‘Icons in the age of tech’) that I really thought about it. My paintings are iconoclastic for the fact that they challenge or subvert cherished beliefs in society and in painting. I often depict these larger than life people – Gods of today who radiate with an artificial glow – similar to that of a religious icon painting but subverted through our relationships with screens and technology.

Oli Epp, ‘Choking Hazard’, 2019, oil and acrylic on canvas. Photo courtesy the artist and Richard Heller Gallery
Oli Epp, ‘Choking Hazard’, 2019, oil and acrylic on canvas. Photo courtesy the artist and Richard Heller Gallery

I was listening to a podcast the other day and the speaker was saying how novels, and indeed most forms of storytelling, tend to work better when they’re funny. There’s certainly a touch of humour in your artwork. How important do you think it is to have an element of humour in art?

A lot of my early battles with art growing up was that I found a lot of it so serious and inaccessible. I felt ostracized by the art world and the language surrounding it. I use humor as a way of making people feel connected to the work, whether that be through an irreverent shared experience or through laughter.

Are there particular ‘funny’ or ‘humorous’ artists or artworks that have inspired you? Or, contrarily, perhaps non-humorous ones from whom you’ve taken inspiration?

I’ve always loved the campy painters from the Rococo period, in particular [Jean-Honoré] Fragonard and [François] Boucher. I live for Peter Saul, Tala Madani, Dana Schutz and Andreas Schulze – his Traffic Jam series is possibly one of my very favorites.

Speaking of funny, you created and founded PLOP, an artist-run residency in Central London. Where does the name come from?

Ha! PLOP is the highest-scoring Scrabble word when using the letters in my name OLI EPP. It made me laugh; I’ve always wanted to use it for something and it seemed perfect for the residency. It’s pop, it’s fun, it’s unpretentious, and describes someone or something being dropped into a new environment for a quick splash. I’m always thinking about titles.

The residency is a great idea. What made you decide to launch it? And was the implementation more difficult (or easier) than you had originally anticipated?

It has always been something I wanted to do. I’ve just been fortunate enough to have gained the trust and respect of some great benefactors who are generously funding the project. I’m running it alongside Aindrea Emelife, my co­-host and special friend, and together we have put in a lot of love and effort into making it happen.

Learn more about the artist residency PLOP here

Oli Epp, ‘Copycat’, 2019, oil and acrylic on canvas. Photo courtesy the artist and Richard Heller Gallery
Oli Epp, ‘Copycat’, 2019, oil and acrylic on canvas. Photo courtesy the artist and Richard Heller Gallery

You’ve got a group show coming up at Carl Kostyál – Malmö. Can you tell us what’s in store for that?

I’m making two large pieces for that show. I’ll keep it a surprise for now, but I’m excited with the way the works are developing.

And what else is next for you this year?

I’m doing a two-person show at DUVE Gallery in Berlin with punky ceramicist Roxanne Jackson in September, followed by a solo show at Carl Kostyál – London in December. I also have some very big news for 2020… but I’ll keep you guessing for that one.

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Catch Oli Epp’s work in Malmö Sessions, organized with Erika Erika Hellman and Svenska Hus AB and presented by Carl Kostyál Gallery, at Ystadvägen 22, 214 30 Malmö, Sweden from May 19 to June 16, 2019.

Cover image: Oli Epp in his studio. Photo: Hannah Burton, courtesy the artist and Richard Heller Gallery

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