David Olivant - Open Ended
by Courtney Cross and Jorden Goodspeed


David Olivant is an artist who possesses a particular skill for capturing fleeting emotions buried deep within the human psyche. His artwork requires lengthy observation on behalf of the viewer. His concepts are not visibly complete, which leaves viewers questioning, longing for more. Similar to dreaming, his work has layers of content that are deeper than we initially perceive. His work encourages the viewer to use their imagination to provide meaning to the jumble of images before them. His initial concept seems to have a flexible nature, so that we as viewers may have a more personal, introspective experience of the content. The observation of the twisted and distorted figures and the fractured space around them can lead the viewer to conclusions that Olivant did not necessarily intend. One can sense his feelings of excited discovery while interacting with them. 

Delving into his own subconscious and bringing out colorful and twisted worlds, David Olivant materializes archetypal characters who are ultimately a reflection of his own experience, but who also beg viewers to consider the ins and outs of their own subconscious. He has found a type of creativity that exists between painting, drawing and sculpture that highlights the connections between them. The underlying visual language involved in his art is line, color, value, and shape. The effect of this language embodies emotional scars, revelry, mischief, arousal, and longing. The bits of recognizable subject matter overlap and intertwine within the imagination of the viewer. The desire for clarity becomes unnecessary, as the viewer allows the truth to reveal itself, rather than trying to assume a meaning that has been previously discovered or ascribed to the artwork.

Working in a way that allows his subconscious to reveal the whereabouts of his own mind, Olivant’s resulting work entices the viewer to listen to their inner thoughts. It asks us to let go of the barriers set up in our material world and think about the possibilities of a world beyond the conscious mind. It commands us to ask ourselves how this imagery might connect to our own thoughts about the world around us and within us. Perhaps the figures we see in his artwork are not far from those we already know. Perhaps the forms that are part human and part animal are an acknowledgement of the animalistic way we interact with the world. As disturbing as Olivant may portray men struggling against one another and against nature or to see women in distress, these are no worse than images we may see on the news. The representation of such forms in a beautifully colored painting brings up the idea that maybe some of these feelings are normal for all humans. Perhaps Olivant’s work shows the extremities of the human condition that are within all of us but are not always evident. As uncomfortable as this may be the work is somehow irresistible and this may be exactly what Olivant is striving for: the ability to break down our inhibitions, to discover truths within ourselves, and to make us recognize and acknowledge a world that is not always pretty.  

“The primary purpose of creating, or making art, is to discover something essentially unknown, or to make contact with something essentially unknown… and I see that as being the primary thrust of my life and what I see as being the ideal primary thrust of most peoples’ lives.” – David Olivant

Developing contact with the unknown is the main drive behind David Olivant’s existence. Creating archetypal figures that are ultimately projections of his own mind, he allows himself to work freely and from his subconscious, at which point he does not control or try to censor the forms that are born. It seems as if he has stripped all of his personal attachment to the specific characters, allowing them to be more autonomous. Olivant does not attempt to explain what his characters mean or want, but he is sensitive to their individuality and purpose in the world, treating them like anyone would ideally treat their child; whether it was planned or unorthodox, it is a life with potential that deserves a chance. What he has accumulated is a large orphanage of misunderstood or abandoned archetypes, searching for a home and a family in the human collective conscious. It is presented to us without judgment, so it is left for us to judge. Like a piece of anonymous, unedited literature, there is an integrity, an honesty in his process that works to liberate art from becoming too concerned with concept or formalism, and challenges it to focus on deeper implications, leading to our place as humans in the world. He encourages the individual's process of discovering, revealing information by allowing it to come through him without a need to rationalize it by theorizing its meaning. 

Points of Intersection completed in 2010, is a piece that combines two-dimensional passages with ceramic relief sculpture,which includes several images of ladders, buildings and figures that are both sculptural and drawn. Using a wide range of colors, the subjects within the image intersect one another, their colors intertwining, and separating to place them on several different planes. Depth is created with size, not only in the drawn elements, but also with the sculptural pieces that have been attached to the panel to create a more physical sense of depth. But the perspective is askew, as if to allow the viewer to see a world from several points of view all at once. This along with the apparent struggle of the figures in the image is a bit unsettling. Some of the nude figures have their hands up climbing the walls of the panels. While other sculptural men don military attire and weaponry as if attacking a city with no visible beginning or end. Some figures transform from drawings to sculpture, while parts of others become unidentifiable animals, or grow wings. Though these are images we may not want to relate to, or see ourselves in, somehow they do not feel completely foreign. 

Another piece created with the same intent is Cadenza, completed in 2004.  Cadenza portrays augmented objects, human figures and animals blended together in a surreal environment covered with an extravagant color palette ranging from bright reds to cool blues and pastel greens. Each object or figure within the piece bleeds off into some other part of the work, which unveils no true end or beginning of each object or figure, and at the same time conveys an open and uniform sense of perspective and space.
In the vibrant colored pastel dreamscapes littered with augmented figures and animals, usually exists an explosion of color where there is no dominant plane, but rather many planes that meld together to create an encapsulating, dreamlike environment that taps into the viewers’ subconscious. Olivant’s knack for creating such a unique environment is in part due to his uncanny ability to portray so much information, which seems chaotic, static and complex, yet succeeds in making the pieces completely unified. At first glance, these specific works seem very erratic, but when studied for just a few moments these aspects of uniformity and chaos begin to come together as a whole for the viewer. 

Olivant gained the skills to create intricate artworks from his experiences in art-school. His artistic abilities have resulted in an integration of representational and expressionist styles, these include twisting lines, captivating colors, and assorted materials, which are supported by perplexing yet spectacular compositions. The extraordinary combination of diverse media creates a compelling style that is unique to Olivant.

A large portion of Olivant’s work is rendered with pastels.  One of the strongest characteristics in his work's overall narrative is color. His choice of particular shades and his placement and shaping of them seems to be impulsive or "random," but as they are the fundamental structure for the composition, they have a strong authority in the narrative of the work. For instance, the shade of red used in the work Legacy, 2005, seems to be an important symbol that shows up throughout other figurative pastels of the time such as Cadenza, 2004, as well as a blue shade in Dei Ex Machina, 2005. This kind of linking between pieces is helpful in unfolding Olivant's unique symbolic language.

Lately, Olivant’s artwork has been more focused on combining drawn, flat images with physical objects, projecting the compositions closer to the viewer. These works, created through a fusion of dimensions, he calls hybrids. They contain the same chaotic compositions as his pastel pieces, only they have an additional three-dimensional component. One of Olivant’s artworks created in this fashion is titled Night and Day, 2010. This piece has a beautiful pastel background that is decorated with floral patterns, dreamlike landscapes and serene architecture. These elements coincide with pieces of wood, clay figures, and airplane wings that stick out of the background and bring the image to life. The integrated scenes displayed in this artwork seem to tell a mysterious story, but it is difficult to decipher the meaning. As with the majority of Olivant’s artworks, each viewer is bound to have a different personal translation of the image. This method of creating hybrids can be seen as his latest transformation in style and technique. 

David Olivant’s work, whether assembled by chance or choice, taps into a deeper level of our own state of being. It also triggers a deep emotional response that leaves you with a sense of something greater than what exists in the material world. Much like Zen poetry, there is a level of detachment necessary for appreciating his work, a certain degree of selflessness to revealing its truth, a willingness to accept truths that one can witness, but not necessarily comprehend. By using his artistic process as a means of transcending his own ego, he looks for the viewer to transcend their ego as well. As David Olivant reveals himself so generously in this work, how can we refuse at least an effort to share in his vulnerability?

Courtney Cross and Jorden Goodspeed are students majoring in Art with a studio emphasis at Humboldt State University.  This essay was prepared by them while they served as interns at HSU First Street Gallery during the autumn of 2010.