Interview with artist Oliver Doe

Exhibition dates: 18 July- 24 August 2019

Location: Vane gallery, Newcastle Upon Tyne

Newcastle-based artist Oliver Doe’s new exhibition, ‘Somewhere In Between’, questions the way that we perceive queer people, turning this abstraction on its head in order to proudly demonstrate LGBTQ bodies as a defiant site of political and cultural difference.

Queer erasure is rendered into boldly coloured minimalist paintings, defiantly present in the space, and yet containing a pervading sense of absence in their abstract forms. The shapes in these images take their cues from bodily forms, viewed close up and magnified so that the actual bodies, their gender or identity, become unrecognisable. Therefore not always pointing to their sexual identity but instead their shapes relay human identities. These forms then overlap, confusing the sense of positive and negative space between the figures, blurring the limits of these queer bodies further.

The colours in Doe’s works recall the vibrant language of the varying pride flags, or the notorious ‘hanky code’, each hue or combination implying an identity. Yet, whilst these broadly painted planes of colour are so obviously in plain sight to the audiences, their actual meaning or coding remains implicit, and open to interpretation. Viewers are left to peruse the colours of the gallery in search of meaning and identity amongst the abstraction.

Oliver Doe, courtesy of the artist

I think we really need to think more about how visual art (and the arts in general) play a part in upbringing and education from a young age – people need to be given the tools to better understand, question and appreciate contemporary art.

Oliver Doe

What’s your background – did it inspire you to study the arts?

I was born to an Irish family in London in 1994. I was fortunate, even if I don’t remember it terribly well, that my parents would take me around museums and galleries a lot when I was very young – places like Tate Modern when it initially opened in 2000 – and always encouraged me to draw. I went to secondary school right in the centre of the city, a stone’s throw from many of the major London galleries, where I could go after classes or at lunchtime, and I got to see the work of some great artists as a teenager. I also had an incredibly inspirational teacher there, a painter called Simon Crow, who was originally from the North East and suggested studying in Newcastle, where I still remain today since graduating from my BA at Newcastle University in 2016.

What was the initial concept for ‘Somewhere in between’, has it evolved along the way?

I started this body of work as an adapted continuation of a previous collection of works that explored queer bodily intimacy, particularly in terms of personal experience, using a very limited colour palette. With ‘Somewhere In Between’, I still had an interest in that, but wanted to think more about a wider range of queer experiences – how LGBTQ+ people are seen culturally and socially. I began to think a lot more about colour, and how colour has been used as a code within queer culture both in the past and present, such as through the Hanky Code or the different Pride flags. As I’ve read more into that, and more around colour theory, the visual language within the paintings has become more developed, but I still really love the idea that they can be read in a multitude of ways depending on the audience’s knowledge of those codes.

Palm twists over the skin of my thigh

Are there any specific events or movements that you find most significant to your work?

For a long time, I’ve had an interest in post-War Modernism, particularly Minimalism, Abstract Expressionism and Colour Field Painting from the 1950s to 70s. On a basic level, those movements have a significant aesthetic appeal to me, but it’s the cultural context that really makes them resonate. That period, before the HIV/AIDS crisis began, saw great leaps made by LGBTQ+ rights activists, as well events like the Stonewall riots, the Wolfenden report and subsequent partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England & Wales, the election of Harvey Milk, and more. I’ve always found an interest in how those social contexts played alongside the art that was being made at the time.

That’s not to say it’s all perfect – the Minimalist movement in particular had an air of excessive machismo, both in terms of many of the artists personalities, but also the type of heavy, imposing work that was being made. Much of what I do is seeking to challenge, usurp, and reinject those aesthetics with a sense of queerness.

Do you choose to specialise in one art form? If not, what are you currently experimenting with?

Whilst I’m predominantly a painter, I’ve always had an interest in the way that painting can intersect with our idea of other media, particularly sculpture and ‘found object’ art. In the past, this has involved three-dimensional, sculpted stretchers for paintings, and the use of clothing amongst works in exhibitions.

There will be some examples of the latter in the show at Vane, as well as some new painted sculptures produced from wood, which I’m quite excited for. I also have plans for a durational performance piece, and am looking into ways in which to involve more audio or video into my practice. For quite some time I’ve described myself as a transmedia artist, using different artistic media to convey the same idea, story, or concern.

Somewhere in Between

What do you think the main challenges are for you operating in the current art market?

As it always has been, the market is focused on very particular centres, like London, Berlin, or New York. Working in a city like Newcastle is fantastic, as it has a really high concentration of practicing artists and quite a few galleries putting on really great shows and supporting local artists, like Vane do, as well as affordable studio spaces. However, there’s a much smaller pool of collectors and less money, so exhibition opportunities and sales are probably a bit further apart than would be ideal. What I’d love to see, though, is more people in general engaging with art on a more emerging and grassroots level – going to smaller galleries and looking at the work of younger artists or those with a smaller profile than the major public galleries show. For that, I think we really need to think more about how visual art (and the arts in general) play a part in upbringing and education from a young age – people need to be given the tools to better understand, question and appreciate contemporary art.

Could you tell us more about ‘akt’?

akt, formerly known as the Albert Kennedy Trust, was set up in 1989 to offer support to LGBTQ+ young people who were homeless, at-risk, or living in a hostile environment. They’ve gone from strength to strength and opened a Newcastle office in 2013. It was set up in response to the terrible experiences of young LGBTQ+ people in care, who were often running away, and was designed to offer safe housing, community and mentoring. They do some really fantastic, vital work in our communities, helping young people live safely and proudly. I’ve been volunteering with them for over two years now, helping their young people to get creative and involved in the art world. 10% of proceeds from any works that I sell from this exhibition will be donated to akt to support them even further.

Somewhere In Between is on view until 24th August 2019 at Vane Gallery.

Read Vane Gallery‘s blog post here.

Find out more about Oliver Doe.