I am constantly searching for something… It’s like a scratch I can’t itch. It’s a constant searching and refining. It’s a search for perfection, where the search is the driving factor, the perfection less important.Oliver Lunn
The following interview forms part of a series where I invite contemporary artists to each reflect on their personal history, meaning, and philosophy, and how those are embedded throughout their creative process.
This week I talk Oliver Lunn, a London-based artist from southeast England. His mixed media collage works are composed of materials “charged with history” – old found papers and magazines – manipulated and reconstructed in a process of layering, cutting, erasing and peeling back. Through this medium he “externalises the internal”, exploring new methods of refinement, down to “fragments of fragments”.
In this interview, Oliver elucidates the many influences behind his process, including an unrelenting “artistic restlessness”. The pieces shown below were ones selected by Oliver on the basis that they highlight themes touched on in our interview. He has “ordered them in a way where they complement one another – space vs chaos, colour vs calm”.
It’s written that your “first impactful encounter with the arts was seeing the paintings of Basquiat, the films of Jim Jarmusch, and hearing the 80s art-rock of Sonic Youth.” In what ways were each of those encounters impactful for you?
When I was a teenager discovering certain albums and movies it was like a secret underworld was revealed. I couldn’t believe there was all this inspiring stuff that I wasn’t seeing on TV or hearing on the radio.
I found a VHS of Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train in a charity shop. I fell in love with his view of the world – his edge-of-town locations, his strange characters walking the streets in the early hours. The film was like a living, breathing Edward Hopper painting, but a bit cooler.
Sonic Youth’s music expanded my ideas of what music could be and do. It was challenging, unapologetically raw and dissonant, what your parents would describe as a racket. And I loved Basquiat’s paintings because they seemed to have hidden secrets half-painted over. I was attracted to the ambiguity in all these things.
It was that classic teenage moment in which your whole world suddenly opens up. The possibilities feel endless. But I will say my tastes have changed a lot since then, as they should.
Since those encounters, have you had any experiences in your life that have altered the way you look at art, or perhaps the way you view yourself as an artist?
I think life experiences alter the way I make art more than anything. When I was at college and experienced my first heartbreak, the difference in my work was like night and day. I went from making these really loud and energetic paintings (the Basquiat influence) to making much more muted and quiet works, which felt more like me. Sometimes you need those moments in life to shake you up. It’s how you find your voice.
I also count seeing other artists’ work in real life among those life experiences. I remember seeing Cy Twombly’s Thyrsis in Berlin and just being in awe of how intimate all his tiny marks felt. It definitely helped me find a visual language to express and explore certain feelings. I think I’m quite old fashioned in that sense: I cling to the idea of art as a means of self expression, externalising the internal, etc.
Are you guided by any essential philosophy in your creative expression?
When I studied art at university I always liked the idea at the core of existentialism: that you’re in the driver’s seat in life, you can be whoever you want to be, “existence precedes essence”. But I don’t think about philosophy as a framework for my work. I am interested in the poetry of the everyday, all the tiny moments that get lost or forgotten. I think small details are at the heart of my work. I love fragments, remnants, traces of people and things.
What is perfection to you, in the context of your work?
I definitely don’t see myself as a perfectionist. I’m not someone who sets out to make an image and then executes it exactly. I love embracing mistakes and improvising. And I think my aesthetic makes a lot of space for that, in that it’s not too slick or graphical.
That said, I am constantly searching for something. I do see images in my mind when I’m lying in bed and feel the desire to create them. They’re blurry and abstract, and I try over and over again to make the image that I saw. But I never can. I’m sure I have a lot of pieces that look very similar, and that’s probably the result of this search. It’s like a scratch I can’t itch. It’s a constant searching and refining. It’s a search for perfection, where the search is the driving factor, the perfection less important.
It’s just like that scene in Close Encounters where Richard Dreyfuss keeps trying to sculpt a mysterious mountain image he sees in his mind. He attacks it from every angle, trying different sizes, different materials. It’s a creative restlessness that I definitely relate to.
How important do you personally find political messagery to be in art?
A lot of great art has come from resistance, or holding power to account – I’m thinking of Public Enemy, Bob Dylan. I think those messages are important, especially if they can be a vehicle for change.
I will say it’s not a factor in my own work, and maybe that speaks to my privilege. No one needs to hear a political message from me, and to be honest it’s not where my interests lie as an artist. I think I’ve also been turned off by seeing a lot of bad political art, or art that shouts its slogans at you. I’m more compelled by political art when it’s covert rather than overt. But I do think there’s a place for both, and the existence of political messagery in art definitely feels vital and necessary.
What do you feel makes your work truly your own?
It’s hard to say, but sometimes I like to think about it in terms of decision-making. Each piece is a record of decisions. Many decisions go into making it – what material you use, what year that material was made, the personal significance of the material, the size, the colours, how you use it, manipulate it, tear it, cut it, peel it, rub it, remove it, erase it, compose it, present it. What happens when you place this colour by that colour? Does that feel right to you?
I’m often working with fragments of fragments too, and some works contain thousands of decisions. So maybe there’s something in that unique order, like a combination lock that’s one in a million. I think, at that level of specificity, it’s basically a fingerprint, something that’s uniquely you.