Locating Loss with Oliver Jeffers

Illuminated only by candlelight, a small group of strangers huddles around a singular painted portrait in a subterranean, publicly undisclosed location in Manhattan’s West Village. The intimate group stand carefully observing, trying to commit the man’s face staring back at them to memory. Moments later, the painted image will disappear.

With the help of two assistants, Belfast-born and Brooklyn-based artist and illustrator Oliver Jeffers–known for his use of space and subtle narrative–staged a one-night only performance, where he dipped 15 of his delicate portraits into vats of brightly colored enamel, permanently erasing the majority of the subject’s features.

“There’s a thin line between destruction and creation,” Jeffers says of his performance, which was part of an ongoing series titled “Dipped Paintings.” In the series, Jeffers explores the fickle, yet forgiving nature of human memory. He paints portraits of sitters who have experienced the death of a loved one, and subsequently masks each portrait with the striking and solid enamel.

“Everything we know has come from stories that have been told over and over again as truth. Those stories turn into history,” Jeffers continues. By inviting people to watch him dip his portraits, the artist says he is “asking people to serve as witnesses and tell whatever story they remember.”

Before his performance last night, we spoke with the artist–whose work has been displayed in the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Brooklyn Museum in New York–about his personal loss and how “Dipped Paintings” came to be.

ANGELA LEDGERWOOD: This project is a marriage between figurative art and science. For you, where do those intersect?

OLIVER JEFFERS: I make figurative portraits as a way to explore theories of quantum physics. I’m interested in how we define things by how we choose to observe them, and how everywhere in our lives, and in every moment we experience, there are forces at work that we don’t fully understand. Couple this curiosity with a love of portraiture painting, and that’s how this project was born.

LEDGERWOOD: How did you put first put those ideas into practice?

JEFFERS: I started hiding my paintings in certain ways, like behind panes of glass for example. Then, instead of hiding them I did something quite cold and clinical: I built a wooden box, filled it with enamel paint and dunked the painting in so you could only see a suggestion of it from a controlled point of view.

LEDGERWOOD: Then how did the theme of memory and loss enter your work?

JEFFERS: I was selected to show a [dipped] picture at the Brooklyn Museum. It was called Without a Doubt Part Two, and a lot of people asked me if I had painted the whole painting before I dipped it. I had, but I had forgotten to take a picture of it before it was dipped. About a year later, it turned out that a picture of it did exist–a journalist who had visited my studio when I’d been painting it took one. Even though I’d painted it and I’d spent a lot of time with it, a year had passed, and over that time I’d come to remember it differently.

This then reminded me of another scenario when my brother was visiting and he told a story about our mother, who had died 14 years earlier. I remembered the story differently. I thought, “Who is wrong? Or, are we both right?” Memories change over time, and I used this idea as a way to link all different spheres for “Dipped Paintings.” The subjects have all experienced death at close hand. I interview them and use that interview as a basis to compose the portrait and then choose the color they’ll be dipped into.

LEDGERWOOD: How do you find your subjects?

JEFFERS: One of them was my grandmother and I talked to her about my mother. Then I spoke with various friends who had also lost someone close to them. I would also meet people and get talking to them and realize they were suitable. It was a very organic way of discovering people. I was interested in people from very different walks of life and who had had different experiences.

LEDGERWOOD: What was it like being drawn into their personal stories?

JEFFERS: The paintings each take several months to do and it’s quite a cathartic and intense experience that’s very pleasurable, but also very strange. Often it’s very painful talking about someone you’ve lost, and often these conversations turned into discussions about what philosophical concepts they’d brought into their own lives as an experience of realizing their mortality. Like, is there such a thing as subjective truth? Do we remember certain events in certain ways for self-preservation? Is it all a lie?

LEDGERWOOD: How will you respond to people who say you’ve destroyed the paintings?

JEFFERS: I will say that I have completed them, not destroyed them. My intention has always been to dip them; therefore, they aren’t finished until they are dipped. I’m not sure what will come of these paintings, but I’m willing to find out.

LEDGERWOOD: Is it difficult to see the portraits disappear?

JEFFERS: One time I was painting someone’s hand and I thought, “That’s the best hand I’ve ever painted.” Then it brings up the question, “Well, why am I painting? Am I painting because I enjoy it or because I want other people to say I’m really good?” This process has also been a letting go of looking for external validation.

LEDGERWOOD: What does your creative process feel like?

JEFFERS: I don’t even know it’s happened until it’s over–I look up and it’s dark outside or the album has stopped.  I never notice myself slipping into it; it’s only when I’m coming out of it that I realize I was there. I think it’s a matter of becoming extremely focused on one tiny thing.

LEDGERWOOD: When do you know when a portrait is finished?

JEFFERS: There are always a few false peaks when you think you’re done. Then you go home and sleep and come into the studio the next day with fresh eyes and you realize you were wrong. These pictures are supposed to look like particular people, so the urge to fix one thing can be dangerous. It can have a knock on affect and then you lose it all over again. There’s no theory–I’ve likened it to a wrestling match. It’s just over when it’s over.