On David Olivant
by Emily Covey
Dreams are a manifestation of our subconscious. What we experience throughout our day and our life becomes the visual vehicle of the fears, stresses, and anxieties we carry below the surface. The worry of getting a promotion may manifest itself as a scene where the finish line is just out of reach. The fear of public speaking may develop as a scene where underwear was the only thing you remembered. Dreams can be as simple as flying through white space or as complicated as being a clown at a fair, which turns into an island in the Pacific, which turns into your grandmother’s house. For a lot of people dreams are quickly forgotten once consciousness becomes active again. Those negative feelings are pushed back below the surface where they won’t bother you while you are busy having fun on the beach with friends. What would you do if these dreams haunted your waking life though? What if you could see the sequence of fair-island-house displayed before you for your conscious mind to experience? It sounds like something in science fiction. Maybe something that could happen with a kooky invention from the future. For some, however, the subconscious asserts itself so as to be manifested in visual form. It can guide artists’ hands and talent so that it can be seen by the world and express its opinion. David Olivant is such a man, the vehicle of his subconscious. The art he creates leaps off the flat surface and shakes the viewer awake. The figures in his art work, who reveal themselves as ceramic and pastel entities, shout to the viewer “I am here!” in an attempt to be seen and heard by the conscious viewer. There is no place to hide in the world that he has created. All that is left is the pure form of human emotion.
An artwork by Olivant, Night and Day comes to mind, is like having one of your craziest most intricate dreams come to life before your eyes. Whenever I look at it I feel like I’m being pulled into the story the piece is telling. I feel like the work is speaking to me, reaching out to me. It is trying to say something, if only I could understand the language. As I look at it my mind starts to fold. It starts to leave me. I can feel my rational consciousness shrinking back to a place I thought only sleep could make it go. I know I’m still awake. I know I’m in real time. I know I’m not in a city, but why can I hear one? This place is so loud. I can’t hear my thoughts. “Where am I!?” I turn a corner and a body with a woman’s head is screaming out at me as she is crawling on the ground. She’s contorted. I don’t know what she needs. “I can’t help you!” As I try to get away from her I stumble over the leg of a man who melts into the background. He’s larger than life, is he friend or foe? “Who are you?” I shout as a woman appears before me. Her skin is blue, she’s nude. Her expression is one of pleasure. Behind, an airplane emerges right before everything changes. Now a different woman is scrubbing floors. She looks different from the other women. She’s bright, made up of oranges and reds, but looks sad. This doesn’t make sense. Why am I outside now? Who left this baby here all alone? It looks like a newborn. I walk towards him hoping to bring him into the shed just up the hill. At a moment of perceived calmness a flash of gold covers the sky and two piercing eyes jolt me out of my trance.
The effect Olivant’s work has on the viewer can lead to a spiritual experience, which comes from the way his figures behave, or more commonly, misbehave. Many of his figures seem to be archetypes, showing women in weak positions, causing the viewer to make an initial judgment on their meaning, thinking that the artist has a sexist side to him. These figures, however, take on a life of their own and react against the viewer’s perception. The woman who seems to stand for a certain archetype visibly questions this role and herself. She exclaims, “I’m more than I seem!” and a sense of guilt is felt for thinking of her and her creator negatively. This can get the conscious moving in such a way as to question the significance of figures that refuse to quietly reside in their ascribed category. Olivant claims he does not know where these scenes of violence, mayhem, and sometimes hilarity come from, but one can be sure his subconscious is trying to explain something. When asked about this he explained that the emotions an artist shows in his work, expressed through figurative and abstract subject matter, is a lifetime of experiences concentrated within a unified space. Every time he has cried, felt scared, happy, every disappointment, shock, and intense bout of laughter crams itself into the art work. It is hard to pick out just one experience and say that is the one that led to this art work. Olivant often feels surprised when he looks at his finished product, wondering to himself where from these ceramic people and pastel shapes manifested. Considering these artworks are so reminiscent of some of my dreams, speaking for myself, some of what is in Olivant is also in me, and if I may be so bold to say, it is also a part of the rest of humanity.
Olivant’s dreaming began when he was a child and used art as an escape from the quiet activities of his hometown, Watford, England. As he experienced adolescence he became interested in the Existentialist writings of Albert Camus. This interest in conjunction with his artistic talent propelled him to seek higher education at Falmouth School of Art in Falmouth, Cornwall as a way to further his artistic mind. During his time at college he began reading works by Freud and Jung, who can be said to have influenced his art theory and his interest in tapping into his unconscious. After Falmouth, Olivant travelled to India, which he describes as one of the most significant things he’s done in his life. While there he produced his first non-representational work. He admits that he does not know why he started doing abstract images, but assumes that it came from the overwhelming sensory experience of India, which he felt his figurative paintings could not compete with. He continued to produce non-figurative work for about five to six years after India. “In some ways, producing abstraction was a rest point,” from the emotional toll figurative work took on him. When he started teaching at CSU Stanislaus he stumbled back into figurative work via a papier-mâché figure. He had created this figure for a work meant to raise funds for the art department and became captivated by what this figure embodied. This has led him to the art works he has been producing for the past five or six years where archetypes are present and jump off the board they are glued down to. These figures were initially thought of as dream figures, as puppets of Olivant’s subconscious. Because of their interaction with each other and the viewer, they started to misbehave. Olivant explains that, “some of the figures, which were supposed to be functioning in an archetypal capacity, started to behave as if they had self awareness.” In one of these recent works, Radical Assemblage, the bare-chested women do not seem to notice that they are exposed. They look straight out at the viewer as if to say, “What are you looking at? Don’t be so shallow.” These rambunctious figures have brought Olivant to a place in his art making where anything is possible, the conscious is the only limit.
Olivant’s experiences throughout his life, from having responsibilities beyond his age to living in India as a young adult to being an educator in California are all experiences that can be seen in his art. Good luck finding them amongst the human-animal hybrids and swirls of abstract lines, but believe me, they are there. Not only are all of his experiences represented but yours, the viewers’, are as well. The magic of art is that the viewer is always the final component. The paint has dried, the ceramic has cooled, the figures are all in their places, but it is not complete until a conscious being stands in front of it and asks herself, “What does this mean?” When you try to understand the image you will find that something is pulling at your conscious mind. This is Olivant’s subconscious asking you to follow it into a place you most likely have never been to awake. If you allow yourself to relax your conscious mind his figures will take you on a wonderful journey. It is a journey through the dark and light, the strange, and the wonderful. It is a journey through a dream.
Emily Covey is a recent graduate of Humboldt State University where she majored in Art History and prepared this essay while serving as an intern at HSU First Street Gallery during the autumn of 2010. She currently resides in Syracuse, New York.