33-year-old artist Oliver Clegg has a lingering fascination with play. His paintings feature abandoned children’s toys, his 2008 exhibit at London’s Freud Museum included a meticulously constructed chess set, and his most recent piece is a foosball table whose players are himself and his wife, completely nude. But there is more to the British artist’s varied body of work than simple whimsy. There’s nostalgia, melancholy, humor, and anarchy; a plethora of opposing forces that make Clegg’s pieces both charming and thought-provoking.
Although Clegg’s roots are in painting—he studied portraiture in Italy for a number of years—relocating to New York offered the artist the resources, space, and inspiration to experiment with sculpture. “With equal doses of cynicism and celebration, I wanted to express a humorous side that I felt was more in tune with specific sculptural mediums,” Clegg explains. Currently, Clegg’s piece featuring 10 green bottles, each containing a neon letter of the word “Artificial,” is on view at “Glasstress: White Light / White Heat,” an official collateral event of the Venice Biennial, which also features works by Tracey Emin and Ron Arad.
While the use of neon suggests an inclination towards modernity, his paintings indicate an interest in history. The canvases used for Clegg’s paintings of forgotten toys and playthings—discarded drawing boards and church pews—are as vital to the overall impact of the pieces as the technically masterful images themselves. “The nostalgic nature of both the surfaces and the subjects are mechanisms for inspiring the viewer to consider his position in the present day with fictitious reconstructions of the past,” says Clegg. The majority of these objects, which Clegg discovers everywhere from antique markets to Craigslist, were once used in one of two significant cultural institutions: church or school. “The work is both a celebration of the institutions and what they perhaps stand for, but also a question of whether their dogma is still relevant in the 21st century,” he says.
With the help of Frieze editor Dan Fox and designer Domie Clausen, Clegg is currently working on his first monograph, a project that helped inspire his raunchy foosball table. The monograph, however, was not the only inspiration. “The second catalyst was the marriage to my wife last year,” says Clegg. “I wanted to make a piece to celebrate this union, hence it being myself versus my wife in our birthday suits.” The table, which is available for purchase via Grey Area’s website, dominates Clegg’s expansive Williamsburg studio and, true to form, the artist is always accepting challengers. “The piece is a healthy distraction for both my wife and I and the stream of visitors we get in the studio,” he says.