Oh de Laval (born Olga Pothipirom, 1990, Warsaw) is half Polish, half Thai. She creates highly sexualised, ultra-violent scenes that aim to capture our quotidian relationships with luck, love and lust. Her idiosyncratic aesthetic takes from children's fiction to create an interesting tension between subject and style. This is a visual balancing act that explains itself perfectly upon meeting the artist: Oh de Laval is at once innocent and disarming, playful and captivating, she is her work incarnate.
UL I’ve noticed your paintings have interesting names, do you have a process with naming them? Or is it just what springs to mind?
ODL It really depends because sometimes the title comes to me at the end and sometimes it’s the first thing on my mind, it’ll be because my friend said something funny or I’ve seen something that really rings a bell for my painting. Sometimes it’s in my head but I don’t know exactly what it will be, you know, and the title develops along with the piece. But yeah, I like when the titles are good: they capture the painting. Sometimes people don’t really get it, they ask “why this title?” But I get it, it’s important to me as a painter, you know, that I’m fulfilled.
UL I don’t think it matters if people don’t understand the title or if the title doesn’t directly correlate to the art…
ODL Yeah I agree, some great paintings in the world don’t even have a title and they’re still great paintings, some real pieces of shit have good titles, and they’re still pieces of shit.
UL Do you think artists narrow themselves by not naming paintings? Isn’t it just another part of the process where you get to have fun and be creative?
ODL Yeah definitely, I really like it, it’s definitely something that stimulates me: the title. I don’t know why, I’m not really good with literature and all that stuff, talking chatting and stuff, I’m more of a picture person. I like the lines, I like how the line can really make a picture, no matter where the line takes me, I will take my time to think about it and what I can paint to show it, you know, in a different way.
The Devil Always Plays the Triangle, 2020, Acrylic on canvas
UL What is this one called?
ODL This one is called The Devil Always Plays The Triangle. I don’t know why but I wanted to have some kind of orchestra and stuff and that’s my own interpretation, that’s what I was thinking while painting it. I just wanted to have like a little devil, that nobody noticed really, in the crowd. But he decides what really happens, he’s the main person and he’s playing the most insignificant instrument, but he’s the one who decides what is really going on.
Disappearing Fruit Stealer, 2020, Acrylic on canvas
UL He kind of recurs throughout the pieces, the devil…
ODL There are a few devils and also lots of people say I have a ‘stealer’ series. I never thought about it as a series because I think a stealer is in a couple of my paintings. People say “oh do you have more paintings of the stealer series” and I’m like “it’s not really a series,” because I never picture it that way: this is the guy with the mask, the guy who’s stealing. He’s like my childhood character who’s always in a mask and a black coat with a big bag. There were so many cartoons who grabbed this character, I can’t recall their names now, but yeah. So I haven’t seen that image recently. You know, now we have things like Bojack Horseman, Family Guy, I still watch these things a bit, but it’s different.
UL So the works channel a kind of imagery found in children’s books. You can see that, but it’s also ultra-violent and ultra-sexual?
ODL Yeah because I like to mix the reality, showing these very sweet characters that we grew up with, then creating like their alter-ego personalities and looking at how they see themselves.
UL So it’s the mixture of two opposing tones that make it exciting?
ODL Yeah and I think when you hang it in your home, you want it to have that second side to it, you just want it to be like between the worlds.
You Can Tell Me Your Reason But It Won't Change My Feelings, 2020, Acryic on canvas
UL It sounds like the paintings are for you, first and foremost, then for everyone else secondary?
ODL They are for me first. Nobody is allowed to see my paintings till I’ve finished. Because I don’t want any frowns or anybody’s emotions to change anything in my painting - it’s mine, then you can criticise it when it’s finished, that’s fine. But first, it’s mine, you know. I think it’s good, it’s yours whatever it is, you know. But if somebody directly influences you before... it’s done, it’s not your work anymore.
It’s not just for me though, it is very funny when people see themselves in my paintings, it’s strange because I’m doing it for me you know, it’s a very personal thing, like writing I think. Painting is a very personal thing, but yeah when people say “oh that’s me and my dog and my husband” I’m like “cool, yeah okay.”
UL Just touching on the personal nature of writing and painting: I think the way people write can often betray a sense of who they are, in other words there’s a part of the author in pieces of creative writing. I wonder if you feel the same way with painting? If somebody critiques your paintings do you ever feel as though that’s a critique of you?
ODL A bit, but at the same time I haven’t been painting for a year or two, I’ve been doing it for ten years, so criticism doesn't really affect me. It’s not only the critique, it’s the good words as well, they’re not affecting me both ways and it’s something that I’m really happy to be like. It’s healthy because if you fail or you win it doesn’t matter for you, you only know if it’s good or it’s bad, if you’re proud of what you’ve done or you’re not. It doesn’t matter what people are telling you and whether they’re buying it for big money, if you’re unhappy with it you know you didn’t do a good job.
UL Artists of all kinds are plagued by self doubt, so if you’re not happy with your work it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s no value in it. Then other people are very important, because they can see the value that you might not be able to…
ODL Yeah I agree with that, I notice it later: people value some paintings that I really don’t like, they’re really important for them even personally because they see something in it and for me it’s just like, I had an ultimate idea of what I wanted to paint and it wasn’t that. The idea is always in my head, but if I’m not in the mood; or feeling well that day; or if I don’t have the skill to do it, although I always do my best, at the end I just see and I know if it’s the idea I had in my head. I’ll see if it’s better or if it’s worse than I had in my head, and if it’s worse everyone around me has a bad day, but it really doesn't happen very often so it’s good.
But yeah I think paintings should take risks, it takes risk to be a painter. I’m not really a fan of people doing sketches. I know some people who finish university and say this is how it should be and I respect that. I think it’s all about - and this is with writing or any kind of work you do - it’s about this bit of magic, you know, when you really sit and write something and you don’t care about the vocabulary or about some view really, it’s the same in painting.
UL On the subject of risk, this is a really interesting time for you because you’re starting at Unit London and these amazing paintings have got you there, got you to a great place; so it must be hard to take risk and move into something new when this has been so successful?
ODL Yeah, that’s an interesting perspective, I don’t really look at it like that, it’s something that I didn’t ask. I’m proud of these paintings, they really have like legacy and like you know I did it when like I shouldn't really have motivation to do it: I didn’t have any money or any money coming from them, so I did them because I wanted to. But now it’s more like yeah, I have more space, I can use bigger canvases that I always wanted, I can paint more details, I have more time for it. I’m really motivated and I don’t feel stressed, I can do more. So yeah I’m really happy.
Oh de Laval in her studio, 2020
UL And you’re now painting on a bigger scale…
ODL I’m moving up in scale, I like the bigger scale, I always wanted to do the big scale but the place I lived didn’t allow me to do that really. And yeah I’m happy with the scale, I’m happy with the subjects, I have more time to think about it. So yeah, I want to keep doing it like this, and I’m still progressing, it’s not like I have this particular character, creatures and style that won’t change, everything is developing quite slowly, if you will see it possibly in five years it will be different, but not immediately now.
Also, I think the subject of each painting is quite different and I like to keep it different, I don’t like to have a formula or some kind of idea that I’m following. The only idea that I’m really following is like to show human life and all the things that are really happening, luck and love and funny situations, I want to show this with my creations. It needs to be realistic in, like you said, blood/violence, but it needs to be as well funny for me. But that’s me, I like a lot of paintings that are not funny as well, they are just great paintings.
UL Capturing humour or being able to be humorous in painting is very impressive. It’s rare that anyone manages to convey their specific sense of humour effectively through painting, how do you think it happens?
ODL Yeah it is difficult for me because I’m just painting with blobs of paint, you know, to make it funny is difficult but when it works it’s so worth it and it makes me so happy you know as a painter, that I achieve it and that’s my goal.
This is What Dreams are Made of, 2020, Acrylic on canvas
UL This one, for example, is a classic comic scenario (gestures to This is What Dreams are Made of).
ODL Yeah giving the love letter, it’s very Sicilian Italian you know.
UL He’s giving her a love letter? I assumed her husband had come home and he’s climbing out of the window.
ODL Oh! I love that interpretation, people get so many interpretations of my works. Yeah it could be, you know, I love all the interpretations. I could say “no, that’s not true that’s not what I was painting” but it’s just like whatever you want it to be.
UL I noticed there are elements of Francis Bacon in the compositions, there are these kind of block shapes. Do you like his work?
ODL Yeah I really like him, of course when you like someone you absolutely get inspired by them and I’m trying to go away from Bacon now, but I really like him and they way he lived and you know he gambled his life and everything, he chose where he lived and what he did and went out a lot and all that stuff. It was really inspiring for me, how he chose to live in London. He was one of the reasons really, besides coming here for my friends, to come here and try to live, not the life Francis Bacon lived because it’s not 1970, but like to try to take the risk because you have nothing really to lose.
Everyone Has a Dark Side Which He Never Shows To Anybody, 2018, Acrylic on canvas
UL Do you think London affects the work in any way?
ODL Some of them yeah, like this one was very London (gestures to Everyone Has a Dark Side Which They Don't Talk About): that was like when you go out, you know, and you just drink a bit and have a bit of coke you know, everybody is doing that in London. It’s just like you wake up in the morning and it’s just so messy and you have to notice that. It’s funny because the title of this painting is Everyone Has a Dark Side They Don’t Talk About and somebody commented under the painting I like the dark side of the dog (laughs). But yeah it’s just the darkside of each of these people. I think everybody has it, but not everybody is even aware of it, that’s what the paintings are about, we all have that side, some of us are very aware of it, some of us not at all, some of us are like 50:50 sometimes. It comes out of us when we’re in the pub absolutely drunk and really want to be nasty and naughty and, you know, kick somebody in the ass or something. I hope they are showing one side of everyone.
I don’t define my paintings really, I’m more happy for people to see it and say “Oh, this is Olga, from what I see” and I know it’s coming from their experience. So yeah I always like to listen to the stories people tell me they see in my painting.
UL What are the peaks and troughs of your journey with painting?
ODL I was born as an only child and I never really could go on holidays, my parents built a house and they invested all their money into it, when I was a kid in the garden my mum you used to tell me like “go just paint something, paint some history.” She was a painter herself so we used to do that together as well. And then I went to the school, school was terrible, everybody hated me, I was bullied and it was all really bad, I still have nightmares about school. But then I went to study industrial design when I was like 19, I had this idea of what I wanted to do and stuff and I went to school and it was all so technical I couldn’t handle it, I’m shit at maths, and all that stuff. So I had to go. But I remember I was very good at painting and at the same time I was studying sociology because I really wanted to finish some studies and sociology really interested me, I really like reading about it. So I started doing little art - A4 size - and thinking about societies and painting and that developed into proper paintings that are bigger and bigger and I was still working you know to have money for rent and painting. It came bigger from A4, so that’s how it has developed.
UL What other jobs have you worked?
ODL Nobody would say it but I was doing lots of financial stuff, lots of administration, like I used to work at the Thai embassy in Poland for seven years with my dad, because he worked at the embassy so that was very comfortable. They couldn’t kick me out because i was the daughter, I get the salary every month, I didn't do shit, like nothing, I was painting literally there, I would close my door and paint. Like when I was 26 I was like okay so that will be my life, I will just work there until I die, and I will paint this stuff. And I’m like “nah I’m fucking off to London.”
Then I came to London and I have amazing friends that invested in me emotionally and with money. There’s no doubt on their faces when I’m talking about my art. They are really proud of me and they own lots of paintings, they get lots for free from me. Yeah I just love celebrating with them because, you know, they’ve been with me from the bottom. And they started in London from the bottom too, like from living with five people in one room and now they own apartments and stuff in West London, they made it. So I’m very glad.
Oh de Laval in her studio, 2020