Interview with Ollie Guyon

23 September 2020

Oliver Guyon, 'Britney', 2018. Mineral pigment, casein, Strasbourg turpentine, gesso and linen on panel. Photo by George Chapman.

GC: Can you talk about your trajectory into painting? What were your early visual art influences? Any particular works that come to mind, artists or movements that were important for you?

OG: Growing up, I was always very stimulated by mid-century design, be it through contemporary furniture or minimalist architecture. For some years prior, I had had it in my head that I was going to do a degree in contemporary furniture design and then at the last minute changed my mind and thought a Fine Art degree would be more suitable as I’d always liked painting. The first artists I remember having had a profound influence on my practice were Donald Judd, David Reed, Lee Ufan, Robert Ryman and Brice Marden. Their works are simultaneously complex and simple, exposing the nature of given materials. This reductive mechanism extends to my working practice and my personal ethos towards making work. Narratives must be depicted in their barest form, to hone in on the potential to find and express the truth in the underlying pattern of things.

GC: You mentioned that your painting ‘Britney’ marked something of a change of direction in your practice. Can you explain why?

OG: In my third year of art school I was making process-led paintings that were much more concerned with image and light than painting’s inherent objectness. The paintings were painted wet-on-wet, and almost had a photographic quality about them, similar to the work of Bernard Frize. Then, I began making my own oil paint and became more interested in the painting’s materiality: how to prepare a surface for the paint to behave in a specific way. At this time the paintings were gestural: I manufactured my own brushes from things like door draft excluders and reduced my paintings to just a few magmatic collisions on the surface contained within quadrants separated with a hard edge. After a few years my interests fell firmly into the material, and my focus shifted from the slightly more contrived images I had been making to the materials that constitute the painting. In many ways, it was a shift from my gestures to the gesture of the materials. Characterised by their autonomy, the paintings are no longer simply pictures but events that are self-referential to the history of painting. They represent a critical dialogue between content and form.

‘Britney’ was part of a series of paintings that was essentially a research task for me. I set out to create work that reflected the things about painting most important to me: the raw nature of painterly materials, the notion of scale, and the reflection of human touch. These were all monochromatic paintings that explored the contemporary relevance of a Venetian palette. Using raw materials derived from nature, I explored the characteristics of the surface that relate to the landscape – something that has always been interesting to me.

By means of traditional processes and materials, these works were distinguished by the chromatic intensity of natural colour. Focusing on individual colours, I was able to expose the subtle differences in behaviour between apparently similar materials. Through the process of making paint, one can better understand the chemistry of colours: their inherent transparency or opaqueness, their viscosity or fluidity. I feel these works embody tension between a two-dimensional image and three-dimensional object.

Oliver Guyon, 'Britney', 2018. Mineral pigment, casein, Strasbourg turpentine, gesso and linen on panel. Photo by George Chapman.

GC: I’ve struggled to compare your painting ‘Britney’ to other contemporary minimalist or abstract paintings. One artist whose work seems to relate to your practice is Barbara Nicholls. While her paintings are quite aesthetically different from yours, she is also concerned with reducing painting to its elemental state. Her watercolours show the transition from pigment to watercolour and back to pigment. With ‘Britney’ you’re also transforming the pigment from its elemental state into a painterly surface. Are you interested in the alchemy of painting, of transmuting the pigment into something else? (As a side note, I see the name orpiment is derived from the Latin “auripigmentum”, meaning “gold pigment”. Since alchemy was traditionally about transforming base metals into gold, it’s interesting that you’ve used a pseudo-gold pigment as the subject for this painting.)

OG: I have always found the art critic James Elkins makes a lot of interesting abstract similarities between the relationship of contemporary art and alchemy. In his essay Four Ways Of Measuring The Distance Between Alchemy and Contemporary Art, James Elkins said something that has always stuck in my head:

“Like painters, spent their lives peering into their vessels, looking for colours, for changes of nature, for the mixtures of elements, for fixity and liquidity and the propensity to stain or evaporate or sublimate: and that is exactly what painters do.”

The stuff of paint, the smell of oils, the magic of the painter’s studio — I think this is part of what drives a lot of artists to stick with painting. It’s a sacred practice. Even though the aesthetic of my current work crosses into sculptural territory, the material elements are still rooted in what it is to be a painter. I think to view a painter as some sort of alchemist carries a lot of weight. Alchemy is the most developed language for thinking in terms of substance and processes. Since art history and criticism are so adept in thinking about what paint represents, then it should be possible to find a meaning within paint itself: this is where the language of alchemy is most useful.

Oliver Guyon, 'Britney' (detail), 2018. Mineral pigment, casein, Strasbourg turpentine, gesso and linen on panel. Photo by George Chapman.

GC: What attracted you to using orpiment, given its toxicity and incompatibility with other pigments and substances? Do you routinely work with toxic or inorganic substances?

OG: As well as various minimalist movements evidenced in the aesthetic of my work, I am also excited by medieval painting, and in particular the history of painterly materials. Some artists of interest are Giovanni Bellini, Paolo Vernose, Andrea Mantegna, Tintoretto, and of course Titian. As I mentioned, this series of work related to the colours that were commonly used in Venetian paintings (from this period in history). So, to create cohesive and succinct paintings, it was necessary for me to explore some of the more virulent pigments. The sheer luminosity of some of these colours can simply not be synthetically replicated to provide the same effects. Honesty and truth in painting are things I continually strive for. It is what it is, and I will never settle for any replication. Currently, I am not working with toxic and inorganic substances due to their chemical instabilities. However, earths, oxides and some natural dyes are still a staple in my studio.

(Email interview conducted July 2020)