Jack Otway is an artist of the obsessive kind, balancing an instinctive desire to create with a sensitive approach to paint as a tactile material. Otway spends months with his paintings, working and reworking them on slippery surfaces. After focusing on the monochrome as a space to explore precision and ideas surrounding ‘perfection’, the artist has recently turned towards a freer and more intuitive way of painting, inviting a new palette and narrative strands into his work.
With an emphasis on the Horror film genre, ‘Check in. Relax. Take a shower‘ presents a new, more personal body of work. Bright, over-saturated colours, organic forms and dynamic brushstrokes find their echo in the visual memory of the DIY attitude of low-budget horror films, which in their exaggeration place violence on a level of absurdity. While fluctuating between abstraction and figuration Otway’s paintings avoid clear depiction or representation and set the stage for an instinctive pictorial configuration.
Anneli Botz: Your show ‘Check in. Relax. Take a shower’ will display a completely new body of work. Where do you see a differentiation from your previous series?
Jack Otway: My old works were all painted in monochrome, but I felt like I was going in circles after a while. You can only go so far with a monochrome and a lot of the time I was just marginally editing colour choices and gestures. I think this was restricting me, especially in terms of composition. Those paintings were looking for some kind of beauty, something like the perfectly flat or the perfectly smooth, almost digital-print like, which is kind of futile, really. I mean you are always gonna get a brush mark or something and I was kind of denying myself the opportunity to use those things, those organic things. So I just decided to change and started making dirtier images. Not dirty in terms of colour, but dirty in terms of the way that they are layered. They’re not as ‘perfect’. The previous series was quite successful, so in that sense I feel like I’m taking more of a risk, I guess.
AB: Also with regards to content? Your current work has been strongly influenced by the imagery and context of the Italian thriller and horror film genre Giallo, as well as movies produced by Troma Entertainment. Both Troma and Giallo films focus on a drastic, almost absurd depiction of violence and horror. How did they find their way into your work?
JO: Violence and horror itself fascinate me. It fascinates me as a form of entertainment, in the physical performance and the way we are distanced from it through a screen or geographically. Similarly, actual violence interests me as much as it shocks me. We can be so aware of things happening around us and do absolutely nothing about it. And I am exactly the same. We are all passive in that respect. I suppose this could be more of an active attempt to understand this distancing.
AB: Like how?
JO: For example, I like the idea of a caricature of violence, of its substances. In a lot of the Troma films you have this sort of nuclear waste that’s active and vividly bright green. And you look at it and think "That probably wouldn’t do me any harm, it could be paint, water, washing up liquid or whatever“, and actually I don’t know what nuclear waste looks like. It plays with the terror and spectacle of these unknown (to most) alien substances and how they come into contact with the banal and everyday, from outside to within – interior and exterior substances. There are certain things that we are so distanced from that you think you know visually or materially, but that you do not know anything about on a tactile level, really. Some of the props and some of the blood splatters in the Giallo and Troma films are extremely unrealistic - but that is exactly what makes them atmospheric and entertaining. They kind of keep them in the screen.
AB: As some kind of distancing or alienating effect towards the viewer.
JO: Exactly. The distance itself is quite important in my work anyway. Let’s say when going from a physical reality of a prop or a ketchup sauce, to on-screen as violence, which is then taken back into physicality within the painting that I am creating.
AB: In one of your statements you quote Sigmund Freud who explained that the use of dolls, or in your case props and substances, produces a confusion between the animate and the inanimate, the human and the inhuman. Is it this kind of confusion you were referring to?
JO: In the way my paintings work it does not really create confusion, but it is certainly toying with that idea. A lot of the forms within the paintings are very bowel-like, intestinal, but then they are also never specifically that. And the way that they are painted is very important – it highlights paint as a gooey material. As much as it is about the painting, it is about the thing and the way it is rendered – an oscillation between the material and the image.
AB: What role does colour play here?
JO: The reds are very important as they are not blue vein-like kinds of reds, they don't really resemble blood, they are very orange, they clash. There is a painting that I called ‘(S)platter’, it is the first one of this series. And it became a close-up of a lady, holding lots of bowels or innards. The title is really key first because of the obvious reference to splatter movies, but more importantly because of the word platter and the idea of serving something up – a feast, a spectacle. Serving this kind of edible indistinctness between the inside and the outside, the organ and the person that is gonna eat it. I think that’s how the lumpy still life compositions started to worm their way into the paintings.
AB: That is gross.
JO: Yes, it’s really gross. I’m not a violent person, so for me it is kind of exciting to be able to get that out in a caricatural, funny way. It entertains me.
AB: How would you describe your paintings to someone that is not looking at them physically, but only on-screen?
JO: Distanced from the work? They are very densely made. I use synthetic pigments, really bright orangey reds, but there are no real earthy tones. It’s strange as I feel it is a very organic and bodily way of painting, but all the colours are synthetic, applied in a really cosmetic fashion – the paint sits like plastic because of the amount of Liquin I use and how non-absorbent the surface is. It is lots and lots of thin, semi-transparent layers on top of each other and they have these veiny kind of bits coming through. Almost like a sinewy skin but still very, very shiny. In that respect they are pretty ugly and you don't get that feeling of the stripped-back, raw canvas. They are getting more and more bodily, is how I feel.
AB: Would you agree that you are currently moving away from abstraction towards a rather figurative way of painting?
JO: I would say I am exploring figuration but I am wary of representation.
AB: What bothers you about representation?
JO: I don’t like the idea of pre-determination as it restricts what a form, space or gesture can become. It’s the strategies and decisions along the way that start to mould the parts into a more coherent whole or image and that way the paintings feel more immediate. I think socially or politically pre-determination of right/left or right/wrong, for example, is equally problematic and restrictive – it’s all relative and nuanced, you know. So I try to go into painting, not having any kind of idea of what I want it to look like but an idea of feel or atmosphere. I know what kind of processes I want to go through and obviously there are things that I’ve seen or read in my mind that are influencing me, but there are so many edits, modifications and wiping it all out along the way. So I don’t do any drawings on paper before. I do not do any sketches or any free planning, which is why some of the shapes are so awkward. Because they just kind of come out, arise. I just try to paint as freely as possible and the edits are not to get to a set goal, but to make decisions based on what is happening on the surface right then and there. Like a stage for improvisation.
AB: The title of the exhibition at Peter van Kant Gallery is ‘Check in. Relax. Take a shower.‘ What does this tell us about your work?
JO: It is paraphrased from the tagline of the remake of Hitchcock's Psycho. Gus Van Sant took a classic and made it underwhelmingly shit. I’m toying with this distancing or remaking in time. So I felt this was worth stealing. Apart from that, Peter von Kant's space is a domestic space too throughout the year, so when visiting it you are basically coming into someone's home, a secure and familiar place. It’s all tongue in cheek – in this instance you are entering with a false sense of security and you’re gonna see some paintings that aren’t comfortable – they’re agitated, cack-handed and physical. These paintings will certainly be a surprise to anyone who knows my previous practice. I’m luring people in "Check in. Relax. Take a shower”. It is a bit perverted, if you will. (laughs)
Jack Otway obtained his BA (Hons) in Fine Art (International) from the University of Leeds (First Class), which included one year on an Erasmus scholarship at the celebrated Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow. Recent residencies and awards include: Project Based Residency, Griffin Gallery, London (2016); APT Graduate Studio Award, London (2016); Into the Wild, Professional Development Programme, Chisenhale Studios, London (2015-2016); Harbour Studio Residency, Floating Island Gallery, London (2015-2016); The Alan Mohun Memorial Prize, University of Leeds (2015); FUAM Art Prize, University of Leeds (2015). His work is included in the XL Catlin Art guide 2016 and in Vol II of Looking at Painting.
Anneli Botz is a freelance art editor and curator, based in Berlin. She has a masters degree in Art History, Philosophy and English Literature and is part of the curatorial collective Point Project. Her written work has been featured in numerous online magazines and print publications such as Interview Magazine, Sleek Magazine, Artdfridge.de, Refinery29, Hey Woman! and iGNANT.