Reigate artist James Oliver talks about the “wow” factor in art, and wanting to be remembered

In the art world, it’s very easy to be pretentious. In fact, in a field that relies so heavily on abstract ideas and a fascination with one’s own creativity and aesthetic invention, lapsing into delusions of grandeur is almost par of course. I know I’ve done it. But for Reigate-based artist James Oliver, innocent passion comes before anything else; it’s all about the wow factor. ‘More than anything,’ he says, ‘I’m trying to create ‘wow’! so anything that does this back to me, I’m a fan.’

This certainly isn’t to diminish his artistic prowess. Indeed, his work is often awe-inspiring and profound. But the motivation is pure; simply to create bold and powerful emotions from his pieces. This is apparent in his influences; ‘The likes of film director Stanley Kubrick and his portrayal of epicness in his films,’ he cites, adding ‘as artists go, Goya, Hieronymus Bosch and Claes Oldenburg, regarding music – anyone that is brave enough to release a single over 5 mins long or a concept album.’

One thing I noticed in his work was a Japanese influence. ‘I love Japanese culture, especially the works of Studio Ghibli’ says Oliver, but says that ‘any apparent influences are I think mostly coincidental.’ He admits that he’s ‘not a great follower of art, music or culture in general’ but attests ‘I’ve always said that my work is pretty much unique as an artist’s work can be.’ Indeed, if art becomes too reliant on artists responding to each other, progress is a lot slower because it becomes a hall of mirrors, with works not responding to the real world but to other art. On the other hand, if you work from raw ideas, your work will have more of you in it rather than being a patchwork of snatchings from ‘the canon.’ Of course, balance is necessary, but it’s always good to start with fresh ideas in this way. 

Talking about the work he’s most fond of, he singles out The Entity series (a selection of which is pictured below). He describes them as ‘simple yet effective characters dropped into vintage, pre-existing backgrounds.’ As well as being his personal favourites, the works have also provided him with some of his greatest successes. ‘These have had a great effect on people . . .  I’ve shifted 200 to date!’ Again, he stresses the affect that he wants to have on people. ‘I’m trying to create something which makes people smile and go ‘Wow’! I like to show people something that they haven’t seen before, something abstract but yet comprehendible – people like that, they feel challenged but not in a way that is too highbrow or elitist.’

Among his greatest successes is to have been exhibited by international exhibitions. ‘Initially (having been ‘making’ for six years now) it was Croydon and London ,’ he says when I ask him about this, ‘but I was fortunate enough to be discovered by a German by the name of Tommi who then let a fellow collector know of my works, subsequently I started up a relationship with a gallery in Hamburg where I have had a show or two a year for the last few years. I have also been represented twice at the London Art Fair which for a visual artist is a bit like a musician getting to play at Glastonbury.’ While he was there he managed to be interviewed by Turkish news. ‘I had absolutely no idea what I was doing,’ he admits. The questions were, luckily, in English. 

The undying pursuit of art, day in and day out, has, he believes, been the root of his success. ‘Doing it for so long and so intensely for periods of time mean a body of work, themes, stories and a degree of professionalism has developed and that makes for products that people want, something maybe they didn’t realise they wanted until they saw it!’ And yet, while all this short-term success is great, Oliver is looking for something more permanent. ‘With around 350 works out there on peoples walls, in offices and galleries I like to think that some pieces will remain generations after I’m gone, most will degrade over time as most everything does but some will get passed down, resold, stored away – I like to think I’ve made my mark on the world.’ There is no way to know for sure, but with the passion and professionalism that Oliver has shown in his career so far, he’s well on the way.  

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