Chris Oliveria conversation

Chris Oliveria, untitled 2011 (particles) 36" x 30"

“My mom sent me a box of papers from when I was in Junior High. It was full of Post-its with messages and quotes scrawled on them, like this one,” Chris said, drawing a pale yellow note from his pocket, “I never realized the continuity of that practice, or even thought of my notes as a practice before. And now they’re on my paintings, too.”

Chris Oliveria, untitled 2001, (white side left) 17" x 15"

Chris Oliveria, untitled 2011, (PPF) 24" x 20"

It wasn’t until I got home and saw these photographs that Oliveria sent me that I recognized we had been looking at monochromes in his studio. The paintings are very full of incident: enigmatic letters that make reference to, without becoming, language, moments when layered and over-painted linen protrudes from the surface, cheerful-seeming swatches of red and white polka dot fabric, and also the lumps and bumps that are attendant to applying many layers of thick and sometimes partially dried oil paint; the monochromatic treatment with which Oliveria “blocks out” much of his painting’s surfaces provides a temporal space for consideration of the work and also provides a loose structure for the history that is present just under their surfaces.

“Blocking out” is the artist’s own term for his practice of covering with layers of paint and fabric things on the surface which are potentially awkward and embarrassing. “Of course,” Oliveria acknowledged, “by troweling paint over revealing incidences, I not only draw attention to what is hidden before anything else but also to the shame involved in attempting to hide.”

A conundrum, this matter of being an artist. The more you solve the worse your problem grows.

Chris Oliveria, untitled 2011 (green 1) 58" x 48"

The artist among his elements: Chris Oliveria in the studio

In earlier paintings, Oliveria used figures as his organizing material. Modestly sized and mostly black, the figures in these paintings (in Oliveria’s mind) began immediately to create a narrative in a viewer’s mind. This act of following along with a medium- of becoming seduced by the figure and suggestible to the hypnosis of recognition frustrated Chris. While artworks needn’t be opaque or impossible to read they should be loose enough to allow a viewer to find his or her own way. Is it  fair to say that a painting should be as open to interpretation by the viewer as a viewer must be open to being led by the painting?

Hence his use of language and specifically the words of favorite philosophical texts as well as an odd assortment of quotes from 1960’s and 1970’s counter-cultural and political comic books. (And these comix are also philosophy texts of a sort.) These quotes are represented with letters cut from linen and canvas and are collaged to the painting’s surface as an initial move. In the course of making, the letters become lost behind applications of paint and accretions of information, the way time might decay and/or enhance one’s memory of a favored phrase.

I asked Oliveria why it is important that the sentences he uses be obscured to the point of illegibility and the artist replied, “Of course the texts are important to me, the actual quotes matter a great deal. But clearly presenting them as phrases would only confuse a person looking at my paintings- my understanding of the words I choose is more about my experience with them while reading than it is based on a definitive statement that the language is making.” (I wonder whether language is as fuzzy a communicator of experience as images are bad representations of one’s experience with a painting) “And so I strive for my paintings to express the feeling I get when I am in the moment, instead of relying on the words themselves to get meaning across.”

As a matter of fact, Oliveria’s newest paintings relate quite directly to paintings the artist made when he first began to think and work as an artist. His use of notes and references to comic books go back to childhood and the first paintings he made- before school, before training- had him collaging fabrics, in his mind polka dots resembled Ben-Day dots and drew the young artist into conversation with Lichtenstein and other of the Pop Artists. Not knowing better, at that time Oliveria used carpet glue to adhere collage to his surfaces. Carpet glue bleeds, and ruins or stains the paintings. He gave up this pursuit in favor of painting on canvas alone until he learned- many years later- that an application of matte medium will achieve the effect he desired without the ruination.

It seems so easy. And damn, if he had only found out earlier.

But Chris Oliveria made clear to me, he emphasized and underlined, that in his mind the path that we take helps prepare us for things that we learn- sometimes in young hands a skill will be wasted that can lead to a fruitful inquiry in a person with more experience and maturity. Painting and art, like life- the stuff art represents- are not to be hurried. We each have our span and although we can’t know the end date, we are sure that we have now- the moment we live- to do the best that we can. To rush each moment will be to waste time.

Thinking this I am comfortable at my lack of immediate apprehension of Chris Oliveria’s subtle notes and quiet moves. Lucky for me I have time to look, to ask questions, to look again and to let the paintings work on me: Oliveria’s heavily worked surfaces and hiding letters, his layers of colors that peek through a final thick wash of off tone, his variety of scales- each handled with agility and confidence, his curious references to an earlier generation of what art history calls funk artists- ceramicists and painters like Peter Vandenberge and David Gilhooly and Roy de Forest- his complete lack of mention of earlier monochrome painters, almost as though he wasn’t interested and those earlier inquiries did not inform his own work- each of these pieces of knowledge plays in my mind. Finally my brain quiets itself and I am able to enjoy the allusive beauty of Oliveria’s monochrome paintings- so challenging they are to represent outside one’s experience of them.

Captioned images above are credited to Serge Hoeltschi

and are courtesy Francois Ghebaly

details and i-Phone shots are by Geoff Tuck


  1. This work- in particular the one containing the words ‘past presnt futre’ – is very timely (get it? just a little Heideggerian humor). I’m finishing a paper on art-making and psychoanalysis in the films of Charlie Kaufman. The theme of temporality and finitude is a main feature of Kaufman’s work in my eyes. This piece of Oliveria’s reminds me of that. I’m reminded of a recent talk by Mungo Thomson about his Time piece. Both Thomson and Oliveria (and maybe Kaufman?) are getting at another Heideggerian(?) concept- what’s concealed is revealed. something like that

  2. Failed artworks by a failed gallerist

  3. Chris, I’m really happy that you found a way to be happy, creative, and live your dreams. I only wish my parents hadn’t painted over my teenage bedroom graffiti! from “I knew you when” early works!

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