Brixton-based artist Olly Fathers’ work arises out of formalist and minimalist traditions and is guided by a curiosity to explore relations between abstract shapes, different materials, and forms. Particularly interested in the use of organic materials, and taking inspiration from architecture, design, culture and computer technology Ollie began integrating woodwork into his practice in 2019. Using self-taught marquetry techniques, Ollie uses incredible accuracy to design, cut and assemble wood veneers pieces. The process is one of both experimentation and precision and the result generates a playful balance between harmony and chaos, stillness and movement. To look at Olly’s two-tone, organic wood compositions is to feel a sense of clarity in the simplicity of primary shapes, repeated and refashioned into different geometric iterations, as though the artist is going through the motions of solving a puzzle.
The title of Olly’s most recent show at JGM gallery, Tangram, is perfectly suited then. Within this theme of creative production, the exhibition title, Tangram, takes its name from two-dimensional dissection puzzles, originating in China during the 18th century. In combination with the artist Dominic Beatty, whose similarly conceptual, but inverted approach, uses the artificial material, acrylic paint to create patterns that look like textiles, arising out of a deep interest in folk culture. Ollie’s carefully cut 2D wood veneers and 3D sculptures are hung alongside Beatty’s paintings in a show which uses pattern as a vehicle to question definitions of chaos and order.
Agnes Houghton-Boyle: Your work evokes such a sense of clarity. The repeated use of primary shapes is balanced with the natural tones of the wood. I imagine that both the process of arranging combinations of shapes until you find a design you like and the practice of cutting and joining the wood would be quite meditative. Did you find the process to be so?
Olly Fathers: Yes, when I'm making the compositions I'm sort of trying to get a constant feeling of balance, and also the potential suggestions of movement, but trying to get a sense of tranquility within the composition. To get that, I'm working until I get a feeling that something is balanced visually and evokes that the feeling inside. The whole process of making the pieces, for me, is quite relaxing and that's what makes me enjoy it so much. From the design through to making it is quite a sort of meditative process. I'll have been full time in the studio for two years at Christmas and while I've been doing it for much longer than that, it's the only time I've been in the studio full time, so I’ve more and more time to think about it. While I've been locked in here, which is something I feel quite fortunate to be able to do, especially in this day and age, and one of the things I’ve begun to realise is that when I'm actually in the process of making, going from design to cutting the veneers out and cutting the shapes, is that there will come a moment where I'm actually not really thinking about anything. Sometimes there will be a moment where I've started somewhere with the knife and get to another point, and it might only be a short amount of time, it could be ten or fifteen seconds, and I'll just end up being somewhere and after, sort of remember that I started off somewhere else. So I think the actual process of making the works is actually almost like meditation. That ability switch off is something I've began to think about and realise it's happening, because it's something that you just do subconsciously, without thinking about it. I'm sure other artists get it as well, but that's something I really become aware of. One of the beautiful things about being an artist, is having that ability to let your mind be free from all the stresses and things in the world.
Have you always been doing this particular practice? How has your work changed since you've been in the studio full time?
When I graduated in 2010, a friend of mine, his uncle had this strange, end of terrace space, that we renovated and turned into a studio. But it was quite far away, so I couldn't go that often and I was also working as well. I've now been in my current studio for twelve years. It became available and I just jumped in here with two other people at the time. I'm here on my own now. So I've been here since uni, trying to make work alongside other work, and the works changed quite a lot. I used to make paintings, not so traditional paintings, there was built up surfaces and drip paint around the surface. I did that for a long time. I got to a point I was really happy with them, but I think because I got them to the place where I always wanted them to be, I didn't have the drive to try and progress them anymore, because I'd achieved it. Then about four years ago I started working with woods veneers.
Covid actually really helped me to focus with no distractions. I spent a lot of time learning about the techniques, reading books, watching YouTube videos, contacting people, but mainly it was just trial and error. I did the balance between work and studio, which has been tilting in the right direction for about four or five years. It got to a point where I had enough not to have to do the other work for a few months. With the extra bit of time, I could make more pieces, and it's just been an ongoing thing from then. With that happening, it's opened more opportunities which has meant the work has done better. It's been a natural progression, but it has increased massively in the last couple of years because I've had more time to make the work.
There's always the tension between wanting to make work and being able to physically make it happen.
It's taken me over ten years to get this to this point and I never expected it to be a quick thing. I've always wanted it to happen in a sort of slow and steady pace. I've got like a back log of experiences. Besides just work, I think it's important to have experiences in life.
That's the thing that influences the work.
I didn't realise it at the time, but I was doing a lot of work that involved using tools, or learning about materials, or just learning sort of insider knowledge about the art world and all these things have sort of helps with various different aspects of me understanding parts of things which are beneficial but now, I feel that knowledge, isn't something I'd have been able to learn any other way. I'm like a sponge that soaks everything up.
When I spoke to you guys at the preview you said that you'd worked as an art technician and met Dominic working at the Saatchi Gallery, where you both were technically installing exhibitions.
That was maybe eight years ago now, maybe even longer. That was how we first met and became real friends through the art technician world.
Installing other people's work must give you a sense of how you'd like your work to be shown?
It's fascinating because, you get to see the backside of the work the artists and everything about it. So both in literal sense of the physicality of the piece, but you also get to meet people and see behind the scenes. You kind of see the good and bad, all of which is you know is quite reassuring, less intimidating.
Do you distinguish the wood veneer work you hang on the walls to your other sculptures?
Whilst the wood veneers are like canvases in a way, all of the pieces, the shapes are cut out as individually and are built, rather than being arranged on a flat surface. They are still constructions and in them I am always thinking about the shapes that are on top of others and the chains of depths that can be created. But the compositions, like the ones at JGM are a more literal version of the 2D compositions, like 3D extruded versions of the 2D works. It's nice to be able to see that, to actually see something balancing on top, the accuracy of it. It's more obvious and increases the sort of feeling of balance, or movement. I enjoy thinking about these ideas and I enjoy the process of executing them and seeing the designs come to fruition. For me, I very much want to feel that the work is progressing. Sculptures is just one part of where I want to go, but it's a fun direction.
The repetitions of the shapes remind me of water in the way that they never settle, they never make the same formations.
There is a deliberate fluidity and movement to the work, which references water, but is also a slight nod to the sixties psychedelic period. Visually I wanted to try and expand on some of the shapes I’d used and so there are various references to sixties architecture and design. It’s trying to find ways to weave in references to other things without being too literal. But it’s always nice for me when people see things and say that it reminds them of something else. For me, it’s really satisfying to hear them trigger those thoughts. I was massively into the big minimalist painters, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella. Some of the compositions are dictated by the material, but there’s certain things I do with the woods, by changing the grain to get subtle changes in tone. So having an increased understanding of material in turn helps dictate some of the compositions and helps me to depict what I actually think.
With minimalism it’s really about stripping back the details which cloud the overall picture. What do you feel you are emphasising in your work?
Particularly the larger works, the thing that I've realised is that it's much more difficult to do a large piece with less elements, there's actually fewer places to hide. You have to be really confident in what you're doing to have a very minimalist piece and be able to stand next to it and promote it. On a technical level, when I'm scaling the pieces up, because of the nature of the veneer and the way that it reacts to humidity but particularly in the gluing process, it's much more challenging to do, like a really large arc that joins perfectly, and the seams don't split at all, than if you have lots of small pieces, because you can control them, you can bind them together, much easier with less movement. Technically it's actually more challenging in a lot of ways to do the more minimal, larger works. Having a perfectly joined arc or circle, because it is stripped back, lets people realise the material and how it's made. I hope there is a kind of heightened appreciation of what's going on. And it all adds to this simple and bold balance that people get when they stand in front of the pieces.
Do you find the process to be somewhat chaotic?
If you were to see me in the she day when the actual process is going on, it's relatively organised but particularly when I'm actually gluing the pieces or in the actual process of designing the works it's quite sporadic and the actual file design is an iteration, maybe. It all depends on the work, some designs come really naturally, it's very nice, and other times it can be 20 durations and lots of different drawings before I've reached the point where I decide this is good and I'm going to go with it. I have to be relatively organised but I think the calm comes within that like a sort of meditation in the cutting and joining process, which has to be somewhat serene and calm otherwise that's when mistakes happen, when I'm erratic and rushed and trying to do things too quickly. Even the material can be quite challenging, certain different words are more difficult to work with than others, which almost like forcing me to be more calm and patient when joining them together. For the joining of the wood to be perfect, it has to be controlled. That probably comes across in what people see, because it is this sort of image of perfectly cut and joined elements, almost like taming the wood to get it there. So it’s gone through the chaos of process. There’s never a time where it isn’t stressful, particularly with larger ones, the gluing process is a stressful time. so it's kind of flickering between sort of trying to be chaotic but me constantly trying to calm it down.
Does it ever not work?
Yes, several times. There's a piece in the JGM show where I had to cut the bottom of three times. As the work develops, I might end up trying to have imperfection show, but at the moment given the nature of what I'm trying to do, it wouldn't work if one little bit split and it wasn't perfect. If that does happen, and it doesn't so much anymore, but it can, then in that case I will either be a case of me effectively remaking it or doing a mini restoration on part of it, or there have been times, where I've cut pieces off, and re-joined pieces. But that has become part of the process now. If it does happen, it's about remaining calm and thinking about how to resolve it. Overcoming that kind of challenge is actually part of the practice now. If it went perfect every time it would actually be quite boring. I mean don't get me wrong, I do enjoy when it goes perfectly, but I also enjoy the challenge of it going wrong and having to think about how to fix it, or repair or restore, however you want to think about it. It is part of the process really.
From left to right: Two Tone No. 9B, Two Tone No. 6B, Two Tone No. 4
It's really interesting to see how far you can take the same formulations, and generate different combinations in different forms each time.
Now I'm actually trying to do some works which are slightly different. I will continue to carry on that narrative using similar shapes and different compositions. But there is a point where I don't want it to be too invested, so I think about how it can expand, and it's starting to do that now. There's much more scope for variation in these new pieces. I think it's important that the work isn't repetitive, I don't want it to stay stagnant. The work made for JGM is very much one series, that follows an idea. I wanted them all to use similar shapes, just two tones. A lot of them are actually inverted versions of one another because they were made using the same pieces. The off cuts from one made the other. That was always the idea strictly for that show with JGM. I've got another show next year and there'll be a different starting point, a whole-body work based on that. It's important that they are very much evolving and progressing.
Earlier, you talked a little bit about the artists who have influenced you. I also wondered if in in a different kind of way, when you are working before, you're refashioning anything that's not gone on right in your drawing, and you're, and you're having to be in this really calm state to try and manage these materials. Is there anything that you listen to in particular, and I wonder this also because of the wood that you use, which kind of speaks to ideas of acoustics and instruments.
I listen to a real mixture of things, but when I'm in the studio, I don't really listen to music very often because it can get very repetitive. In the last few months I've started listening to classical music, particularly Bach. I don't really know a great deal about it at the moment, but I do find it relaxing. But I also listen to LBC and a lot of podcasts - and also talk sport! For me, it depends on which stage of the process I'm at. But it's more just to keep me sane because I'm here all the time.
I also think both your work - and also Dom’s but in a different way, because it comes out of folk traditions feel closely related to music, it would be such a nice exhibition to have a language of sound accompanying the pieces.
Yes, I think music would go well with the show. It's been really nice working with Dom and I think we’ll look to do something together again in the future. There’s very different skills involved with our pieces but they’re also similar. I’d like to think that someone can image me cutting out all of these pieces and joining them, and the time that goes into it. With Dom’s work, it’s almost like you can see his hand moving and the time that goes into that. I think that’s one of the reasons they work well together.
Tangram, Installation view, JGM Gallery
Image credits: JGM Gallery/Olly Fathers
Agnès Houghton-Boyle is a critic and programmer based in London. Her writing features in Talking Shorts Magazine and Fetch London.