RUSSELL + RYAN OLIVER //

A brilliantly logical and ethical approach bellies the dark and thematic artwork of Ryan and Russell Oliver

It is 9am in the morning and Crack has done the unthinkable – rousing two artists to meet us for an interview at their Spike Island studio. Luckily a long coffee from the public café downstairs helps matters and is drunk as Crack familiarises itself with an industrial looking studio hidden away on the top floor of the iconic Bristol art venue. This space is where identical twins Russell and Ryan Oliver have been creating dark, apocalyptic pieces of art for the last five years, since moving to Bristol from their native York to study Illustration ten years ago. 

On one side of the studio there are huge, intimidating paintings propped up against the wall, where life-like figures stare out into the distance. On the other side there are altered magazine covers and editorial spreads distorted by the suggestiveness of naked flesh. Pots of paint sit alongside stacks of porn magazines and, despite both artists having full time jobs, their studio is a hub of energy and inspiration. Experimental painting styles, eerie figures and the pondering of death is supported by photo-montages exploring the sexual language of fashion and the implicit within corporate advertising.

The Oliver twins were always drawn to the creative outlet of art. They followed their shared passion together after secondary school by migrating south to Hereford, and eventually Bristol. It is here that their work has developed into large bodies, independent of one another, yet inspired by working side by side in their studio. Crack caught up with Russell and Ryan to quiz them on the influence of death, gang culture and over-sexed advertising…

When you were younger were you attracted to the same themes in terms of drawing?

RYAN: It was the age of the VCR wasn’t it? We were always into watching horror films and into gore and stuff that kids are – if their mums will let them.

RUSSELL: I remember we always used to like drawing decapitations and stuff – I think that might have some sort of relevance to the aesthetic of our work now, if you really want to go back in time (laughs).

Despite studying the same subjects and sharing a studio, you’re both doing very different things artistically. When was it that your aesthetic interests ciphered off and went in different directions?

RUSSELL: I used to draw over posters and I did that for ages and then just came to a dead end. I was bored of it and then decided after a 12 year period of not painting properly, or whatever you want to call it, I wondered if I could still do it and it’s worked out alright. That’s why I paint now, because I was bored of what I’d been doing for 10 years. I just wanted to make big paintings.

RYAN: I guess our work didn’t suddenly break away from one another from a similar perspective, because as Russell said, he was working over film posters so there was always a photographic element to both our work…

RUSSELL: … and altering the photographic image by either painting over it, or like Ryan does by ripping, cutting and pasting it. I was going around a lot more galleries and seeing a lot more paintings. I was bored of what I was doing, so just thought I would paint and see what happens. Weeks and months later, we’re at this stage.

Does it annoy you that people seem to lump you together as a collective?

(Laughing) RUSSELL: I think we are what we are. I think its interesting people see us as such. It can be quite an attractive concept to say ‘this is the work of two identical twins’, so that’s good in a promotional way, but when people see our work they can see it’s really different anyway and judge it individually. It would never be a problem.

Ryan, a lot of your work uses images from brand advertising. What are your views on big corporations and do you have anything against them?

RYAN: I don’t have anything against corporations or anything like that – they’re always going to exist, there is no way of eradicating them. The only thing that niggles me, or that my work is directed towards, is the beauty aesthetic in high-fashion magazines. I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem for everyone, it’s a problem for me simply because I see it every day when I look through magazines and it all becomes a blur of the same old, tired, boring repetition and over airbrushing…

RUSSELL: …Over sexualised.

RYAN: Yeah, and all those things. So through making observations and looking at all this stuff I thought ‘how can I use this and put a tilt on it?’

Ryan, there are two very different types of magazines that you use in your work, was it pursuing the beauty element in the high-fashion magazines that led you to introduce the use of pornographic magazines?

RYAN: It was seeing the sexualised language within fashion, especially the likes of American Apparel. I guess I am replacing the implicit for the explicit and holding them accountable for the sexualisation in their adverts. It’s like holding a magnifying glass up to them; ‘this is what you’re really saying, we all know what you’re saying’, which is where the pornography came into it. I used to create huge scale, almost mural-like apocalyptic photomontages and needed a lot of limbs. I needed them to be naked, so I needed breasts and full frontal pieces so that’s where the porn initially came in laughs, but it came in very useful for exposing the sexualised language of fashion as well.

I see parallels within your work to that of the visual artist Christian Marclay, who creates similar collages out of record sleeves. Some of your pieces can appear quite obvious in their message, while others are more suggestive. What, if anything, do you want women to see when they look at your work?

RYAN: I don’t want women to see anything – I want people to see. It’s not directed at a gender. I’ve rarely been at an open show and had derogatory comments, but I actually had one lady who seemed a little bit confused. This was back when I did my huge apocalyptic images with lots of nudity and violence and at an open show she said: “I’m a little bit perturbed by all the sex in your work.” I replied: “Well if you look quite closely you’ll see that there is actually no sex going on in it, its just nudity.” It’s strange a lot of people confuse nudity with sex. The woman in question didn’t mention that these women were decapitating men, disembowelling men, the violence and stuff. Sex was her main concern.

RUSSELL: Ryan’s also had people leave notes after the show saying ‘you’re exploiting women’ etc or ‘pornography is pornography however you use it’, like it can’t be used as a vehicle against pornography. So he has had a few comments but most of the time people get it, get that he’s not trying to push pornography. They are just observations, its not like he’s against the sexualisation, it is just an observation that it goes on and we are being honest about it.

RYAN: The whole point about being an artist isn’t answering questions; it’s asking them. There was a girl from the Bristol Feminist League who thought it was wonderful. Obviously I have concerns when I make this sort of work, only the tiniest niggle at the back of my subconscious, but if I get comment from someone like the BFL then that’s good enough for me.

Russell, what is the visualisation and inspiration behind your work?

RUSSELL: It starts off with one photographic image that interests me in some way. All the work that I’ve done so far is experiments with paint to see if I could put several different styles together to make an interesting canvas, because there’s nothing worse than a pale work. I like stuff with an impact and an attitude. Regarded with Loathing: The Young Crazed Peeling started off as a picture of five models from a magazine looking a bit surly and then through my own imagination I invented these characters. It didn’t start out like this, but basically I had an idea of youth culture, gangs and people hanging around on paths. I wanted to take it to the extreme where they’re almost demonised, the youth, ‘cause you know these days it’s like you can’t walk past five of them without checking you’re not on your mobile phone or holding your handbag close to yourself because they might knife you or whatever. I don’t really have that view, but I wanted to take it to a massive extreme and not have any clichés in it – I just wanted to make these demonised characters that are confrontational.

Russell, Portrait of a Dead Self is a life-size painting that depicts a small boy sat on top of a gravestone. Is this illustrating a childhood you’ve moved on from?

RUSSELL: No – it’s implicit to everyone really. I read quite a lot of philosophy, which is about dealing with death and how we shouldn’t be too perplexed by death because we’re all born into a futile struggle. We’re all going to die. We have these stages of death anyway. What do you have in common with the five-year-old self that now doesn’t exist? It can’t be found anywhere, you’ve kind of incrementally died throughout your life already – that entity you were when you were a baby isn’t here anymore, and may as well be dead. This goes on through your life until you die. Even if that five year old was still on the planet, you wouldn’t have anything in common with him so that’s what the piece is about. There isn’t that entity around any more – although it’s me, you can’t find it. So it’s a portrait of my dead self.

RYAN: I’m still waiting for my one!

RUSSELL: And then we’re going to present them to our mother…

Most of your canvases are life-size, around 6ft by 4ft. Why do you choose to paint on such a large scale and what is it you enjoy about making that kind of impact?

RUSSELL: I wanted them to be fairly life-size. With a large canvas, if you’re trying to blend painting styles, you’ve got more room to manoeuvre. I’m sure you could paint small, but I feel more comfortable doing it on a large canvas. You can be more expressive and when you’re doing the figurative stuff you’ve got nowhere to hide if it’s big – everyone can see it. I like the idea of it having to be exposed.

You studied together and you now share the same studio – do you have different working processes, such as working to music or working to silence, and how do these individual working processes coexist in the same environment?

RYAN: Some of my pieces, when I’ve found what I need, take about five minutes to put together, but the endeavour in finding a visual connection between two pieces can be searching through 60 magazines and if you’ve ever had to look through 60 magazines, it’s a nightmare. It is so laborious it can send you dizzy, so one thing I do is put music on – if I had to sit in silence I’d probably have packed it all in by now. Music is the only way that you can have some sort of external interest going on while you’re sifting through waffle.

What kind of music do you both listen to?

RYAN: A lot of rock music at the moment, The Strokes, stuff like that, but then I like a lot of movie soundtracks and a lot of Michael Nyman; that’s good. If I need pepping up a bit I go for something pacey; if I just want some serenity for once I’ll go for something a bit more classical.

RUSSELL: We can’t play anything out loud because it would disturb people in the other studios. We love music when we’re walking to work, walking back from work, going to the studio, doing the dishes…music is there all the time. There is always something new to be listened to and like Ryan says, a lot of it is mood-dependant and it can actually change your mood – it makes you think more – painting in silence isn’t any good.

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Words: Sarah Pusey

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