Q & A with Oliver Hawk Holden
First Amendment Gallery
Betty Number 22 Taken Down
Opening Reception - May 4th 7-10pm
Showing Through - May 26th
First Amendment Gallery is pleased to welcome multi-media artist Oliver Hawk Holden for his latest solo exhibition, “Betty Number 22 Taken Down” opening May 4th. We sat down with the San Francisco-based artist to discuss his signature processes, his most recent creative endeavors, and billboards for local lawyers.
Firstly, thank you for answering some of our questions for your upcoming show, “Betty Number 22 Taken Down.” Secondly, I have to ask- did you ever complete your 2015 project, “The Nun Race Through San Francisco”??? I had stumbled upon an old Kickstarter campaign where you were raising funds to make nun costumes for a presumed skate video but in all of my searching was unable to find a finished piece.
Yeah, I did complete the nun race. There was a video and an opening at a gallery in the Mission, which ended up moving to the Tenderloin, and then ended up getting shut down
Why did it get shut down?
Um. Let’s not get into that … but I was able to raise the money for the nun race. Someone donated $10 and then accidentally donated $100 which actually made it a lot easier [to reach my goal] & then I was able to get the fabric and sew all the costumes. I had a bunch of different people filming what was going on. I had people with GoPros and bikes with cameras attached to [them]. So I got the video footage. [Filming] it was pretty hectic. Like, someone almost broke their arm, the cops showed up twice- at the beginning and at the end.
Was it all shot in a day?
It was all shot at once. It started at the top of the Stockton Tunnel and ended at the Yerba Buena Park. So I had it all shot, I had 6 or 7 different cameras going, and then I edited all the footage together and had a screening in the Mission. I also made plaster trophies that said, “I Lost Faith At the Nun Race,” and I handed those out to all the people that participated. It was a cool show and my friend, Lucas, took a bunch of photos- film photos- and we blew those up… I still have one of them…. But yeah, that got completed. That was my first solo show in San Francisco. That was pretty fun.
Is there somewhere we can see the video?
It’s online, I think it’s SF Nun Race on YouTube.
Your work is profoundly and hilariously human; it seems to connect audiences with would-be realities about, perhaps, their own lives while examining the external connections within our human experiences. What would you say is your favorite (or least favorite) common human experience and how do you use it as a catalyst for creating work?
I have done a lot of portraiture and figurative work where it’s kind of like one end of a conversation, or one end of some sort of communication or reaction. Someone being seen or not seen, and everyone wants to be acknowledged. I have portraits of people waving… you know when someone waves at you but it’s for the person behind you? It’s like you have your hand in the air and you slowly bring it down… it’s like this awkward experience. Or even that expressed through expressions on people’s faces. I just like this half communication that’s kinda hard to explain… it’s kind of like people caught in their own thoughts, not really paying attention. Portraiture is really just about that person, what that person means, their best side, or their power. [What I like] is the opposite of that where they’re a little bit more vulnerable in that sense. Portraiture and figurative art, either through painting or sculpture, is always interesting because people really just project into figurative artwork. People project on to all kinds of artwork but it’s easy to identify and relate to a human experience when you see it. Not to bash abstract work or anything because that can make you feel all sorts of different things, as well [but] with figurative [work], you get to kind of direct [the reaction you receive] because it’s easy to express your feelings in vulnerable situations.
If we could peer into your mental archive of inspirational moments, what would we find in there?
A lot of imagery that is accompanied with text... I’ve always had a hard time with text in general but I think that imagery and text are the two keys of communication. Text and image and symbol- it’s like a Venn diagram of communication in my artwork. The image can allude to one thing and then text can allude to another and then having any sort of recognizable symbols or color is kinda like mark making, in a way. You get to communicate two separate things in two entirely different ways and usually there’s a space in-between there where you feel something that’s neither of [those things].
I used to do more comic book-esque stuff (prior to memes). I think having text and image on art now… people see that so much within the internet, so I’ve kind of shied away from that. But within the work in this show, I’ve cropped the images so there’s only parts of words on [the works]. I’m [referencing] these shots from billboards of lawyers… finding imagery for me is like finding a subject for portraiture and a lot of the time, I’ll take [references] from different things that have already been documented like billboard people or I’ll take stuff out of the Chronicle or stock imagery that I find or old textbooks and stuff.
So there’s some sort of familiarity in it…
Yeah, there’s some familiarity within it. I did the haircuts, which were all portraits I found in barber shops…
I love that one! It’s so good!
It’s a fun one! So, I was trying to look at that again, and I remembered that I had seen this sign when I was over by the freeway in Bayview. There’s this dude who has been on this billboard forever- I think they just switched it out- but it’s like all those ones that say, “Accident?” or “Injured?” and then they have the lawyer- they’re [on the billboard] giving their best selves... but you know how people feel about lawyers… I don’t know, I kind of feel squeamish about them.
But it’s like this totally fake smile and it’s super intense with the yellow background and them in a suit and it’s like your “church clothes,” it’s like your “best self.”
But not your authentic self.
Yeah, not your authentic self. I think having that accompanied with these half words or the last part of a sentence or just random numbers from a phone number on the side of it, is kind of interesting to see.
I like that: It’s almost like you collage random things that you see throughout your life.
Yeah, for me right now, I’ve been thinking a lot about distractions and things that are keeping us from moving forward; things that kinda keep you down. It’s been kind of interesting and that’s what I think the “Betty Number 22…” is. It’s this unseen thing that is holding you in place and not letting you grow and “...Taken Down” is like “take it outta here!” That’s kind of a confusing thing to me right now. I’m trying to find a symbol… maybe something from the Odyssey, some sort of like… not villain… but like some sort of force or word for a force that keeps you stagnant or keeps you in a place. For me, that force is being at a job for four years and not really thinking about much else. Or like your phone. Just different distractions in life.
You just recently did a project for Facebook where you created a relief mural of a crowded street scene- a picturesque slice of life that is devoid of your usual humorous undertones but largely showcases your signature style in alignment with the general sentiment of your artist statement. How was your creative process different in creating for this project than making art for yourself and how do you think those channels intersect?
For that large mural, I used 1 inch thick MDF board, 9.5 feet tall by 26 feet long and, like I said earlier, I was taking images from the Chronicle, I was taking images from articles about pedestrian rights in San Francisco. I took a couple pictures from friends, just a bunch of different photographs from SOMA in the 80s and I cut them up and collaged them into this long strip of people and drew on the MDF and carved it with Dremels into this giant relief mural. Then I sanded it down with help from my cousin, my girlfriend came and helped paint it. A bunch of other friends came and helped paint towards the end. Then I installed it in a building downtown for the commission.
That was an interesting mural because the general idea was 745 Market Street: it’s just an intersection of people just on so many different paths and so many expressions. There’s construction workers, a lot of different commuters, there’s just all sorts of different pedestrians… but each person is looking in a different direction and walking in a different direction and it’s all pretty much from the belly up. It was interesting to try and take that large of space and fill it entirely with portraiture, which was a lot. There was no background, it’s all just figures so it was hard for me to carve the base because usually when I do a portrait, there’s a background. So now there’s someone in the foreground where their head is like five feet tall and then there’s someone behind there where their arm’s the size of that person’s hair. Just filling in that much portraiture and seeing that many different people crossing was interesting and fun… then it was tiring. I spent, like, a month on that piece.
For that piece, there wasn’t anything really that funny about that it. There were a few goofy faces and people smirking, or someone with cyclops sunglasses in it. There were little funny moments but that went into this giant office building, up on the 19th floor. I kind of wanted to bring the sense that not everything exists within this office building. That there’s a million other people going to work. A sense of unity with people who are artists, people who are on the grind just as much as people in the office are.
“Betty Number 22 Taken Down” opens at First Amendment Gallery on May 4th with it’s opening reception from 7pm to 10pm and on view for the month of May. For more information on Oliver and a sneak preview of the show, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.