Arriving at Imitate Modern’s new space at 90 Piccadilly on Saturday 6th June, I am excited to check out artist Paul Oz’s portraits of the most feared and adored 80’s icons. Assembled for ‘80s KID‘, Paul’s first UK solo show now on view at the gallery, the works are vividly coloured, highly textured and pulsing with an unmistakably 80’s energy.
Set against white walls, Maggie Thatcher catches my attention first, her deep-set eyes seeming to call me up the long staircase, with that signature Maggie flair, a combination of traditional British elegance coupled with a gentle gaze and slightly pursed lips.
Before too long I spot Oz, who is as cool and comfortable as his name suggests, sitting casually at a desk in the back of the gallery. As I scan the walls, I am struck by the way in which each individual portrait commands the space in its’ own eccentric way.
We begin chatting about all things not-art. His interests are as diverse and dynamic as his paintings for this show suggest, from his degree in Aerospace Engineering, to his successful career in Motorbiking and love of Formula 1.
ArtAttack: Based on your biography it seems that a career in art happened rather haphazardly for you. Is this true or did a part of you always know you wanted or needed to be an artist?
Paul Oz: It was by chance. I mean I started painting literally just to fill up a blank wall that I had in a new apartment. And then I just started playing around with acrylics and creating abstracts twelve odd years ago, and I sold the third one – to a mate – accidentally, almost. And thought, ‘Oh, that’s interesting, a bit more pocket money here’. And from there just tried new things and saw what I could do. I was quite good at school, but I only got a C for GCSE Art because I didn’t follow the guidelines and wasn’t good at laying things out. I was an A grade student at maths and physics, and so I was told I had to do engineering, and not art. Because nobody ever makes any money from doing art, do they? And so I had something there, but it was only until I was 29 that I started playing around with it.
AA: So initially, I mean the first few works you made, were not with salability in mind?
PO: No, actually not, but at some point I thought ‘if you want to paint what you want to paint, you also have to sell it, because paints are expensive and you can’t spend a lot of time doing something if it’s not going to benefit you somehow. Because, you can’t afford to.’ It’s one of my strongest beliefs that you do actually have to try and give people what they want.. you have to have one eye on the commercial side of art, otherwise you’re not selling, and if you’re not selling you can’t afford to practice and if you’re not practicing you’re not getting better. And then you have to get a proper job, and paint on the side, and then you lose focus.
AA: Art is ‘a proper job!?’
PO: It’s definitely not a proper job!
AA: But how wonderful that it is actually your job?
PO: No, it’s crazy! It’s unbelievable. Let alone, the work I do in Formula One. I mean I get to several races a year, and shows in Singapore, live painting on a yacht in Monaco. I mean is that work?
AA: It’s a beautiful life!
PO: It is, but it’s definitely hard work, too. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. 16 hours-a-day, 7 days-a-week. But, again, how is that work?
AA: Well, you obviously don’t feel that you’re working, because you love it and it clearly comes so naturally to you.
PO: Well of course – I don’t get Monday morning blues because I don’t get weekends. Nothing ever slows down. It’s definitely a job in that it’s not always easy forcing yourself to be creative. If you’re tired and have been emailing all day, or doing admin all day – no matter how tired you are, actually, you have to force yourself to be creative. It’s like exercise.
AA: I can relate. I’ve heard all about artist’s block – it’s obviously real! So how do you get over it?
PO: Creatively, I’m always ok working under pressure, it’s just about starting and then quite often I start, not until 7 o’clock in the evening, and then I’ll work until 2 or 3 in the morning because you just get into it, and too much coffee is… inspirational.
AA: It is inspirational! You mentioned that you were 29 when you made your first independent work of art, so that leaves a pretty wide gap between your GCSE days and the time you decided to embark on an artistic career. What did you do in the time in between?
PO: Well as I said, I studied Aerospace Engineering but that was a bit too… I mean I’m not really a numbers guy. I can blag it but I think there is a difference between being able to do something and actually liking it.
AA: Do you think there is a correlation between art and science?
PO: Yes! Well engineering and art, yes. I think that’s why I paint like I do. It’s very structured and everything happens in a specific order. Especially some of my animal pieces, where I’ll start by painting the whole animal black and then begin bringing the lighter grays and lighter browns forward, and then you end up with 15 layers of paint, which is why it looks 3D because it’s actually built in much the same way.
AA: Right, it’s almost like sculpting in paint.
AA: To what extent do you think that your lack of formal art training allowed your style to develop in such a unique way?
PO: I think so – I have more or less taught myself. There are a couple of artists that I pick up ideas from, but that was many years ago and I have moved a long way from them stylistically, but everything has been an accident, and occasionally you realize that it works and when that happens you try to do it in the same way again.
AA: Sure. So there’s definitely an element of ‘automatism’ in your work, a Jackson Pollock approach to your ‘splashes of colour’, which almost look like ‘contrived mistakes’.
PO: Exactly! At a party the other day I must have had ten people say ‘I love your random splats!’ – Well they’re not random at all. Nowhere near random!
AA: Of course – so you think really carefully about the motion that is needed to create the ‘chance effect’ and the positioning of those affects.
PO: Exactly. Well they really add to the 3 dimensionality of the work. In large part the 3D effects is really a result of the splats.
AA: And how long does one work take you, on average?
PO: It varies massively but probably on average, a week or just over a week. I have to work fast so it does my head in to work on the same peace for 2 weeks.
AA: Right, and because you work in oil which takes longer to dry, do you work on a number of canvases at the same time?
PO: I go the other way round actually, I keep the canvas wet as oppose to letting it dry. Again, I have no idea what the technique should be because I have no training in this. But I find that as long as you keep working on it, it’s fine. I can leave it a day and a half before it starts to form a skin, it then gets difficult to rework. The texture is what people love so I really try for that.
AA: It’s certainly the texture but I think it’s also the iconic nature of the works which make them so easy to like. What other qualities do you think adds to their salability?
PO: Well, I fundamentally I paint what I like and would want on a wall and it turns out other people like it. It’s the easiest thing ever – I don’t need to be told what to paint in F1, I know what I want to paint because I’m the biggest F1 fan going.
AA: So who do you support?
PO: Well, I have to be careful about who I support openly these days, because otherwise I’ll end up hitting myself with one team and not getting work anywhere else but I’m a patriot first and foremost, so Lewis and Jensen, definitely. And it’s amazing, that both of them have a piece of my art as well. One of those ‘shake your head moments’.
AA: Is there a work in this show that you are particularly fond of?
PO: Um, probably ‘Terminator‘. Strangely he was one of the easiest to paint – he’s one of the biggest and looks complex, but I got him right straight away. Which again, you can never judge.
AA: Well thank you so much for chatting with me! I look forward to seeing future shows.
PO: Thank you. Thanks so much.
– Imogen Baxter
Paul Oz ‘80s KID‘ is on view at Imitate Modern until 22nd June; 90 Piccadilly, Mayfair, W1J 7NE; Monday-Friday 10AM-6PM (Weekends by appointment); Admission: FREE