33-year-old Oliver Clegg is a young, multi-faceted British artist quickly ascending the contemporary art world hierarchy. He holds a Masters in Fine Arts with extensive classical oil painting training in Italy. His works are striking 2D and 3D creations that embody nostalgic tropes of the past. His art canvasses often consist of discarded and reclaimed items that once held immense social importance — old school tables, antiquated wooden toys, aged Amish church pews, etc. He paints on these abstract forms to create subjective connections between the past and the present. His work hearkens to simpler times when things were analog and less fragmented. Clegg’s art has been shown in many distinguished galleries including the Freud Museum in London, and interestingly, global music star Beyoncé has taken quite a liking to him. When she launched her BeyHive Blog spot and featured one of Clegg’s pieces, he instantly amassed a new legion of intrigued admirers. We visited his art studio in Williamsburg. Brooklyn, his newly adopted home, to learn more about the enigmatic creator.
How would you describe yourself as an artist?
When people ask what kind of art I make, I naturally respond that I’m an oil painter. After my secondary education, I decided to go to Italy for a year and study portrait painting. So I moved to Florence and learnt a specific technique of oil painting. I basically had to draw a portrait model in the morning for 3 hours and in the afternoon I would have to paint nude models for another three hours. It was really an archaic and intensive way of studying painting. I went back to London and got a degree in art history and Italian, and after I graduated I went back to Florence and continued my education. I would say the last five or six years since I graduated have been a release from those traditional beginnings. When I began using different found surfaces and painting on top of them, I started to see these different relationships that you would not necessarily get if you were doing regular canvas paintings.
Why did you relocate from the UK to Brooklyn?
For me it was three factors. The first was that my sister used to live in New York, and whenever I visited, I thought that this place was really incredible. I always thought that this is somewhere I wanted to live. Here you can’t chuck a stone without hitting an artist.
Secondly, my wife and I moved to Cornwall for three years right after my father had died. We lived by the sea it was a very introspective and quiet time. My wife had a lost her father too, so from that complete isolation we felt we needed a big change.
Thirdly, it was more of the contemporary context about Europe suffering greatly because of its economy. I think there is a greater optimism in America. When you are constantly bombarded by media and press about how bad things are [in Europe], it kind of makes feel like it’s to get the fuck out of there.
Can you explain to us your affinity for old things?
In the current era we live in, people always focus on the future. But when you go to the British museum or the Met and see displays of little trinkets from Egyptian History, they don’t necessarily look like something you would pick up and cherish – it looks like rubbish. But if you actually pick these items up and put them in a case, put them behind glass, you see the value. I just wanted to invert the perception of how people look at things that have lost value and make them have huge value. I want to place the object into a position of worth. So with all the old church pews and school tables I use as canvasses, there is an important nostalgic value. There is value in the past still. To sum it up, I want to make art that causes the viewer to think of the relationship between the past and present as opposed to constantly thinking about what the next thing is.
Tell us about your current works?
One of my projects I’m painting is a triptych on these old Amish church pews I found online. It depicts 3 stages of a collapsing tower of colored bricks. It can be a metaphor for the fragility of cultural institutions like church and school. Another thing that happened when I moved to NYC is that I don’t frame my work anymore, I like to have everything more stripped down. My work has an ambiguous narrative and by putting frames on them, it felt like I was taking something enigmatic and trying to formalize it.
For more information, visit: www.OliverClegg.com