Oliver Jeffers: Observations on Modern Life

by Lara Morrell
March 26, 2019
Lara Morrell

We had a chat with Oliver Jeffers, the award winning artist, illustrator and author in his studio in Brooklyn, ahead of his upcoming exhibition at Lazinc Gallery in London, ‘Observations on Modern Life’. 

Lara Morrell: Your third solo show at Lazinc is opening next month, what’s in store?

Oliver Jeffers: Its going under the title of ‘Observations on Modern Life’, its almost entirely works on paper or found objects, there will be more of a degree of collage, rather than oil painting. Some are re-appropriations, some are created from scratch but all of them, as the title suggests, are some sort of comment on what it is like to be alive in the 21st Century. Sometimes I deal with specific politics and sometimes with general social issues, as often as possible I try not to be angry but hopeful or funny, pointing at the humour or the poetry in something, if it is there to be found.

There are four main branches of types of work: four contemporary stories that are oil on paper, a whole bunch of maps, which are not quite straight maps but twists on maps using the classic geopolitical map as a way to make atypical points just about how maps are carved up in the first place, the idea of nationalism and xenophobia in a modern world, and continuing on from that there are a series of globes, that I have sometime re-appropriated and sometimes painted on from scratch. Then there is a series of what I call ‘disaster paintings’ or interventions on oil paintings that I have found on the street over the years, usually depicting tranquil landscapes that are lacking action where I intervene and insert that action and that is a comment on society in general, a society which is not quite satisfied with tranquility, we look to find the drama in something and that’s what we’re drawn to like a moth to a flame and then there is some just more general political and social commentary that are works on paper, that talk about things like organisation, self driving cars, social media.

Most of it is new work, at the earlier stages there were a series of older works but these have slowly been curated out as the newer work was coming together and the look and feel of the show was more complete.

Lara Morrell: Could you tell me about,‘The Moon, the Earth and Us’, your interpretation of the Overview Effect* at The High Line at the beginning of this year?

*The overview effect is a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts during spaceflight while viewing the Earth from outer space.

Oliver Jeffers: I made an installation inspired by and for the 50th anniversary of the earth rise photograph, when humanity saw itself for the first time with an honest filter, as a single object and as one single system. The one commonality that all these astronauts had when up in space was yes you can make out landmasses but you certainly cannot see borders and you absolutely cannot see any trace of people, so these borders really only exist in our minds.

The installation consists of scale replica of the earth at 8 feet, the moon at 2 feet and they were 166 feet apart. (There will be a mini version at the LAZinc show, with the earth at a foot and a half, the moon at 8 inches, with 17 feet between them).

Being Northern Irish, I’ve always had a slight distrust of anybody who is very patriotic as Samuel Johnson once said ‘it’s the last refuge of the Scoundrel’, but there is an element of hope in ‘The Moon, the Earth and Us’ piece, which is just a reminder that people live only on the dry parts of this planet and that makes up only 30% of the surface of the planet and this is the only place in the known universe where people can survive, that’s it, that’s our lot and it is infinitesimally small and frighteningly fragile.

‘The Moon, the Earth and Us’, will be moving to Europe by the years end.

Lara Morrell: Does the dichotomy between the label of children’s book illustrator versus that of an artist ever bother you?

Oliver Jeffers: Not really, the two worlds are more intertwined now than they have ever been. A lot of the political commentary I was making in ‘Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth’, that I made for my son three years ago, was the same as what I was getting at for the High Line Piece, which was not a far off a recreation of the back cover of the book, there is all sorts of positive social commentary, so they have been overlapping for a while. The show of large scale oil paintings I had took a lot of the colour cues and the connectivity between ourselves and everything else from ideas that were planted when making this book. So I try to avoid labels, it doesn’t feel accurate to just say I am an artist and it doesn’t feel accurate to say i’m just an illustrator either. I try to refrain from calling myself anything at all.

Lara Morrell: Tell me about the use of written word in your art-work and what that extra layer entails?

Oliver Jeffers: Its always been an aspect of my work and is actually how I got into making picture books in the first place, the combination of words and pictures saying and doing different things. Its a layer of my visual lexicon that’s come through the work, not all of my pieces have text or type on them, but you can add an extra layer, you can contradict and compliment what you are seeing and often times I use the writing as a graphic devise to anchor a piece together with some sort of focus, so really its just another tool in the tool box.

Lara Morrell: When did you career as an artist begin? Did you go to art school? 

Oliver Jeffers: I’ve always liked Picasso’s answer to that one, “when did it all stop”?! I have always loved drawing pictures, most kids do, the trick is remembering that when you grow up! I went to art school once I had figured out that being an artist was a legitimate job and I had decided the system worked pretty well for me. I went to Belfast School of Art, Ulster University.

Lara Morrell: Where do you source all your re-appropriated materials from? 

Oliver Jeffers: I’m given a lot as people have come to know what i’m into! The North-east coast is filled with barns full of stuff so sometimes I go and scavenge around there. Sometimes if I need a specific thing to execute a concept, I go out looking in second-hand shops or online.

Lara Morrell: You currently live and work here in Brooklyn, no plans to go back?

Oliver Jeffers: If people think it’s mess here, it’s mess there and a lot of the work does speak to that, the lack of awareness, the lack of foresight, the insular and selfish mentality that has been seeping through the Western world recently, that is obviously being conveyed in who is president of this country and with Brexit happening.


Lara Morrell: Were there any challenges which arose during the preparation for the Lazinc show? 

Oliver Jeffers: Well all the work is done and sent, from my responsibilities sake at least! Perhaps what was a little challenging was fitting a lot of different works into one space, with different themes and issues being brought up. In some cases the stories being told are quite vague, others completely obvious, trying always to be either hopeful or poetic.


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