The Getting Bigger Everyday Game: A Conversation with Oli Epp
It always seems like Oli Epp is playing a big game. The Lonodn artist's spirit is generous, and it's palpable even across the ocean. As a residency host and fine artist, his work is about a rare sense of sexiness in an otherwise near-digital aesthetic, a warmth in what could be perceived as a modern chill. His newest body of oil and acrylic works are on display at Richard Heller Gallery, where Big Game comprises of 6 paintings that speak to the bold and broad universe that is Los Angeles.
Evan Pricco: You have always been sort of this great energy in the London art world, and I loved how you hosted a residency and felt like you were observing the art world around you in a very comuunial way just as you were emerging into the scene yourself. When the world slowed down a bit, what was it that you were noticing then? And now that it is opening, what do you see now amongst your friends and peers?
Oli Epp: That’s kind of you to say that. Lockdown was really dispiriting for a lot of people. It made me question what it means to be an artist during a time when art couldn’t really be seen.
I have a handful of friends in first and second year of art school and it was clear that it was a very difficult time for them. Imagine how hard it must have been to develop a studio practice in your bedroom. I really wanted to get PLOP Residency up and running again this year, in collaboration with Cob Gallery, so that there would be more opportunities for creative dialogue in London. I wanted to bring back the energy to the Big Smoke.
Now that the world has reopened, I have noticed a real thirst amongst artists to just reengage with art in the physical world again, as much as possible. We all want to go to as many shows and openings as we can, get in each others studios and see what we have all been working on these last eighteen months.
What does LA look like to you? I feel like your work fits so nicely into the visual landscape of the sprawl.
I don’t actually know what LA looks like. I spent all of my time in the studio in Santa Monica, with one day trip to the Hammer \Museum. I did visit Harvelle’s Blues Club four times though, I love it there.
There was that incredible line in David Pagel's description of Big Game, where he said, "Epp’s paintings are made for people who understand that what we think we know is not as potent as what we really know, especially when that knowledge is tested against everyday experiences, every day, again and again." I like this idea because your work has familiar recognizable "logos" and cultureal signifiers but there is a more obscure delivery that you present. What did you think of this quote when you read it?
I think my work tries to reimagine everyday life through the spectacular lens of painting. Taking cultural signifiers, like a Slazenger logo, which we engage with everyday through clothing and advertising but usually would never give a serious thought to and re-contextualising it in painting offers the viewer an opportunity to really consider the meaning of these everyday motifs in our lives. I think that is what David Pagel is suggesting: that uncovering subconscious knowledge, gathered from our surrounding world, is more powerful than what our conscious mind thinks we know.
What do you think is at the core of your studio life right now? What is motivating you?
I’m juggling a lot of projects right now alongside my painting practice, which really help stimulate me. I’m curating Alexander Guy’s debut, US solo show Cupboard Love at Harper’s Books gallery, which opens this month. Also, relaunching Cob x PLOP Residency has kept me very busy. Next year, I’ll be having my first, New York solo show with Perrotin Gallery in June. So, preparing for this show is a big motivation for me in the studio right now.
I have asked this a lot in the last year, but what does urgency mean to you?
Urgency for me is the sense of panic that I feel when I’m completing a show and collection day is the next day. With all my shows I am working up until the deadline. The paintings always become more ambitious than originally planned and that always creates a sense of urgency in me.
What is the unifying thread of the 6 works in this show?
The title of the show is Big Game and I was, quite literally, thinking about all the big games that the characters are playing in the paintings. There’s a bowling bowl as big as my head in Lucky Strike. I was also thinking about the title in terms of taking something big on, which involves risk. Ideas of big game, big risk and big payout were in my mind when thinking about the show.
Some of the themes that run through all the paintings are entertainment, games and luxury. I was spending a lot of time in the arcade, casino and going to cabaret shows. Roulette is my game! I regard each painting as a moment of seductive fun, images that we can indulge in and enjoy.
I knew I wanted this show to feel sexy and a little bit risky; it definitely has a kind of Las Vegas, Miami atmosphere to it. Lady Luck references that iconic Pulp Fiction nosebleed scene. I wanted the portrait to reflect the intensity of that given moment, playing Poker and winning double sixes; feeling so much adrenaline, that it stimulates a nosebleed. I also wanted the characters depicted in the exhibition to reflect the powerful women in my life that I love, like through the dynamic pose of the performer in Phermone. Each painting feels as though it is really confronting the viewer. Snookered features this Bond villain-eque cat, interrupting a game of pool, choosing to totally dominate the social space out of its own self-centredness.
When you go to LA, what is the first and last thing you like to do?
The first thing I did when I got to LA, was go to Santa Monica Pier and go swimming in the ocean by Venice Beach. The last thing I did was have a dinner with Richard Heller and Skye Volmar. Skye is an artist, who currently has the other solo show on at Richard Heller Gallery.
Big Game is on view through December 18, 2021