Oliver Marsden’s Paintings: Changing Brain States by Matthew Collings

Very strong illusion made out of simple means—big square format with two sprayed dots—like joke modern art painting—my daughter used to laugh at modern art and say you go to a museum and there’s a canvas with a dot in the middle—I could see what she meant—but here it was, this arresting visual effect in Oliver’s studio—just shows that an idea can be a simple one, and then it’s all in the carrying out—and like writing or music, you do it, and then you keep at it and it starts to be something.

What it becomes is then the new idea, even though on paper it would seem the same as the old one, or to an untrained eye it would still be a dot on a canvas—but in any case here are these sprayed dots arresting me—not that I am a neo hippie or loved up—Oliver’s explanations often have this feel—in any case the dots hover and seem to be forming themselves as you look—as you move in close one dot seems to be the after-image of the other one.

Dark red spray—orange ground—it’s a fine line between working and not working—the way the sprayed dots pulsate is deliberate not accidental—it seems simple and easy—but to get them to the point where they do pulsate takes a lot of work.

More paintings—a lot of them are one single radiating disc form—he says they first developed from the study of water—in 2005 he also started working with sound and sine waves (these are measurements, sounds can be broken up into them, they have different frequencies and amplitudes)—the related oil paintings he calls Harmonics and Dubs—the Dubs are relatively rare; big and dense like sound, while the main radiating format, like the perfect ripple left by a pebble falling in water, is the Harmonics—a disc radiating—every one is different but the format is the same.

He used to work in Damien Hirst’s studio, but they’re not like Hirst’s dots—I always find those dot paintings attractive, and I marvel at the visual sophistication—how does Hirst achieve it?—I think it’s a mixture of his own sense of balance and the sense of balance the assistants have—he goes with the flow to some extent but in the end it’s his painting—but in any case he really has got an eye—I never know what to make of the spin paintings though—they seem more like records of performances than something visual exactly.

Interestingly Oliver’s radiating spheres are actually done using a spin method—his machine is a primitive electricity-powered homemade contraption using an office chair with a board attached—at a right-angle to the wall—the canvas is attached to the board—the board spins—Oliver holds the brush somewhere in the centre—he has to keep coming in and out and back and forth—judging—is the form right?—(Q: What’s your main rule? A: Never faff around)—he gets into the tiny nuances, yes, but mostly he makes big decisions—it’s a process somewhere between sculpting and tuning.

When he investigates sine waves it’s to try and understand what’s happening in the Harmonics and Dubs (he thinks of them as vibrations)—when he started painting them they were like perfect spheres lit from behind—like a pure form, almost—but now there’s a greater element of time (Q: What do you mean? A: Changeability).

The central point of the disc is the starting point—like striking a guitar string: the noise, and then the fade-off at the end.

He says the difference as he goes on and on making these paintings is that he’s trying to get more and more detail in—it seems only one thing at first, then you see more and more relationships.

I can’t remember what the sprays are called—ah yes Liquemorphs—good name—you have to keep hold of what is important—or what the hell, why not just let it drift? —I’m not sure why he’s telling me that kyma is Greek for “wave”—ah yes, a sort of 3-D Dub—Wow that kyma looks complicated!

He made it by some process of dragging a cut-out shape of wood through material called Jesmonite—the result is a disc just under a metre wide rippling with an undulating wave pattern—the hollows about three inches from the heights—but it looks flat at first—it’s almost funny when you realise how different the real object is from the illusion.

Sound—colour—light—coming into the studio, listening to music all day and feeling exhilarated by light—he still doesn’t know what’s going in the FAS show—there’s a lot of work in the studio, and he’s making more all the time—maybe a lot of big Harmonics in the downstairs bit—good, like a lot of resounding gongs maybe.

Interesting that at art school (Edinburgh) he dutifully did all the conservative things on the course: life drawing, nature drawing and life painting—paid for the course working in clubs at night and by doing portraits—loved learning everything—in the free bits of the course he started doing abstract art, and he already knew that’s the direction he’d be going in—for ten years he hasn’t known exactly what he’s doing all the time, but he’s always felt he was on the same path—his studio is in Frampton-on-Severn—remote beautiful hamlet with a river and a canal—lives nearby and grew up not far away (born in Reading; Mum from Leeds; Dad from Bolton)—he’s lived in the USA, New Zealand and France—he met his wife on an art residency in the USA—she was a student, making underpants out of mouse skin.

From his talk he seems giddy and floating but also serious, practical and thoughtful—he works hard all day and goes home at five to see his seven-months old son—in the mornings he looks after him too—he thinks about types of oil paints and acrylics and other materials all the time—he wants to investigate them—he thinks the answer to some philosophical puzzle he mentions is “love”—I laugh at his mixture of big, strong forearms and big, black, round, hollow ear rings.

He was turned on to science at Edinburgh by the writings of David Bohm, the scientist who discoursed with Krishnamurti—trying to get quantum physics to fit into a spiritualist idea of reality—it’s in one of these cosmic discussions about reality that they come up with divine love or unconditional love as the big answer.

He had a long session in the studio the weekend before I arrived, working on many canvasses simultaneously, painting hard and fast, “speakers bleeding” he listened to Nirvana, the Stone Roses and to monks chanting Om—he says there are many very cheesy new age chill out Om chants, which he doesn’t like—the ones he likes are the ones akin to guitar feedback distortion—deep reverberation.

He says Om chanting is a way of changing brain states—ha ha, I think, anything is that—having a cup of tea, going to bed, etc—but I know that even cynicism can be measured—you can treat it as a material—channel it into creativity—I think Oliver’s inner being commands: CREATE BEAUTIFUL PAINTINGS—as opposed to the higher beings parodied by Sigmar Polke when Polke says: HIGHER BEINGS COMMAND: PAINT UPPER RIGHT CORNER BLACK—but of course Polke is only playing at parodying, since he really does often paint beautiful paintings, and there’s no cynical undermining of the beauty, except your knowledge of his other obviously cynical paintings—like the HIGHER BEINGS COMMAND one—or the ones where a lot of numbers and plus and minus signs all deliberately add up wrongly—in the end you think well, Polke’s an acidhead but also a thoughtful challenger of painting.

The light-artist, James Turrell, makes light substantial, whereas Oliver feels that with his own paintings he’s trying to dematerialise it—(Q: What do you mean? A: Turrell makes form out of light. I try the reverse: to make substance seem immaterial, to create a virtual perceived space in the mind of the viewer).

He used to paint them by hand without the spin machine—but that way you’re concentrating mostly on getting a round form—being motorised allows you to move to other levels, concentrate on all the different balances and relationships—(Q: What are they, these relationships? But there’s no definitive A)—he feels it’s right when he’s got the balance but he’s not sure what the balance is, how it’s different from when it’s not right—each one is a challenge: to get it right, to commit to that form.

He painted a mid-green one with a white centre, which worked—it happened just like that, very quickly—so he stopped—it can work quickly and you can lose it just as quickly.

He recently saw a statue of Buddha in Japan by Unkei (12th century)—it was alongside many other Buddhas, but looking at this one, he saw how much in another league it was—how beautifully balanced—the way it achieved its aim—projecting calm simply by that balance.

There is a real sense of relatedness throughout his work from university onwards—experimentation with form and perception—he wants people to involve themselves—feel they’re creating the painting too—exploring—perceiving—it may change in colour, or pulsate, or it may seem to race—it can be Rothko-esque and full of mysterious depth or can have a pumping beat and be bright and alert—even in different light the paintings change—low light gives a calm, gradual and soft change with far less detail, and bright light reveals variations quickly—and they’re dependent on how the viewer processes them, the viewer’s subjectivity— there are optical effects and illusions, yes, but it’s not just that—there’s the illusion of the sphere yes, but you’re also seeing through the illusion—seeing just the raw elements—seeing how the effect is achieved.