Curator & Writer | Hakan Burcuoğlu · Venue | Justin’s Studio · Gear | Leica
5years ago, on a dreadfully wet Vancouver evening, inside a dilapidated WINNERS store with atrocious air quality and offensive lighting, I ran into Maria—a high school friend from Ankara I hadn’t seen in over 12 years. Although we’d never been that close, what stayed with me, in spite of the time spent asunder, was her exuberance—a relentless life force that always culminated into a singular brand of Russian revelry. Who knew a late night stroll for epsom salts [and winter socks] would open up a world of existential wonder?
Although Justin—Maria’s husband—came by association, he was very much integral to this new world order. And for the better part of five years, we’ve become quite close; revelling in the face of the absurd, much like Meursault in Camus’ Stranger. But unlike the titular hero’s fate, entering Justin’s Dionysian domain, and experiencing his inner workings, was not only a rarity—it was emancipatory, fucking Narnia. And what seemed like a veneer of hubris had proven all but illusory, giving way to humbled grandiloquence—a seasoned raconteur, and master flâneur, drifting away in his own Peter Pan universe.
Interviewing artists is nothing but unchartered territory for me, and I’d never been this nervous going into one. Whilst reviewing some talking points the night before our session, my phone rang and it was Justin. There I was, thinking “fuck, he’s going to either postpone or cancel”. But his words were quick to assuage my various anxieties —“Hey Hakan. Let’s just drink and hang out. I might paint… Do you like gin!?” Yes, Justin. I love gin. But I like your paintings better. So this time, I tried my hand at drifting, submitting to his domain, and process. We drank lots, talked about life and art, and listened to Radiohead. I’ll never forget that night. So here’s to you, Mr. Ogilvie.
HB: So this is how you begin.
JO: I like to be a little bit organized so I can manage the chaos when it comes. It allows me to stay focused. Some people think it’s OCD [chuckles] but it’s so that I’m ready to be spontaneous. It’s all about the flow. I do fucking hate doing this sometimes—it’s what studio sins are for. I like rituals but I’d prefer to do the dishes more than this.
HB: Do you always lay out this many colours?
JO: Always. Even the ones I don’t think I’ll need. I’m like a kid in a candy store. I don’t want to come back and do this again after I start painting. One of my teachers used to say “organize your colours and your palette” before each class. It’s become one of those things that defines me as a painter. It’s funny—sometimes I can’t find a certain colour, and I ask myself, “Is it meant to be, or should I move on?”
HB: I know you also teach from time to time.
JO: Teaching is fantastic, but in small doses. Otherwise, your painting practice starts suffering, and you don’t realize it until you’ve dug yourself down a hole. I’ve learned to protect—or create—boundaries to give me that space I think I need. It’s always about space and time, and an artist always wants more of both… your own Peter Pan world. But it’s never enough, and you’re always chasing that dragon. But that’s also fine. Good enough is good enough.
HB: I find that hard to believe since I know you’re bit of a perfectionist.
JO: [Chuckles] I’m definitely a recovering perfectionist, constantly. I’ve evolved as an artist—I come from more of a drawing background—interested in form… depicting volume. The human figure was central to my first sort of muse in art. It’s still there, but the focus of interest isn’t so much on depicting the human figure in an anatomical way. I’m definitely operating from a different place. Colour and paint—they were never things I felt comfortable with. Even after graduating I was very insecure as a painter. It’s chaotic when paints mix. Drawing is something you can control better. Drawing’s good for perfectionism, and painting’s bad for it.
HB: It’s funny you say that because your works are so colourful.
JO: It’s a part of my transformation. In 2008 I decided to put a halt on the classical stuff, which coincided with a time where I was getting more exposed to contemporary art. In hindsight, I still think wasn’t ready for it. I was really in love with some of these traditional ideas, and always felt traditional artists never finished what they started, so I saw some openings for myself to get in there. But as I got in, I realized that perhaps I made up a story in my own mind just to help myself get in there.
JO: It was a pilgrimage. It’s like Kool-Aid—sometimes you have to drink your own to keep the fiction alive. It’s an important part of being a painter because you have these bubble pops—these artist’s blocks—like “what the hell am I doing making pictures for rich people to put above their couch?”. Everybody wants to be in a museum, to be recognized for their brilliance, but I’m pretty much in my cave all the time. At some point you start to wonder what it’s about and eventually you’ll find out it’s either meaningless, and get nihilistic about it, or you can go “fuck it” and live like Camus—celebrate in the face of the absurd, revel in it.
HB: His Stranger is one of my favourites. Also a short read, which makes it a double-favourite. But that brand of revelry is pretty defiant really.
JO: There’s a type of resistance, absolutely. Theory and philosophy… all this stuff that artists reference to justify their work. It goes back a long time. In the 60s painting was proclaimed dead—this idea was that there were no more spaces left for authentic originality to emerge. Picasso had shattered the glass. So critics stopped paying attention to this medium. They started evaluating everything as a derivative of the past.HB: Not a comfortable headspace for artists to be in.
JO: Since the 60s painters have had a lot of insecurity and felt the urge to justify themselves and their intentions. So the “artist’s statement” became a real thing. Now, that “statement” is very much naturalized. In fact, it’s the first they’ll ask you in any art school. To say, “I just enjoy painting, and would like to be a painter” isn’t enough. But it is, and any painter will tell you the same. If the artist has to change his life too much to adapt to some philosophy, they’re not going to want to do it after for a while. It’s going to start feeling artificial. It always comes back to the material.
HB: And it’s also not sustainable.
JO: It’s not. It’s not just about the material, it’s what happens on the canvas. Every canvas—every single painting—is different. There’s never a plan you can count on. A designer has control, they can take something back. But as a painter you’re always pushing forward, carving through a stone wall with a dull spoon. It’s an incredibly difficult process to keep your faith in at times. Also because of the culture we live in… we’re not super culturally savvy with the arts.
HB: What do you mean?
JO: I mean North American culture. Too many strip malls and not enough galleries. There’s a bit of a bias towards pragmatism in our culture which stems from our peasant work ethic, or the stranglehold of capitalism. It’s the air we breathe. In Europe, they’d get ask “what’s your work about?”, which is phenomenal. Here, it’s usually like, “can you make money from it?” Moral of the story, drink your own Kool-Aid.
HB: Your wife, Maria, probably helps with supporting you in that.
JO: There was a certain point when her influence moved in and just found a home inside of me. She has a brilliant eye, a keen nose for authenticity, and a uniquely fresh sensibility. I think it all comes from her huge heart, which is inspiring to be around. What a privilege! How lucky am I!
HB: She’s quite the kindred spirit.
JO: She’s been my biggest advocate for accepting—and embracing—my wild and wonky side. My goofiness would always be suffocated beneath my technique. I’ve always been interested in technique—which largely comes down to ego, to wanting to be good. It’s when you let go of the technique—that’s when you really paint and create. I’d show Maria my silly stuff and she’d respond to it, and with my serious stuff she’d shake her head.
HB: I get the lighthearted ruse, but I’m curious about the solitary dimension, battling insularity and all.
JO: It’s a state of mind. Once I found the world that I wanted to live in I didn’t need anything. I can look at a tree and see a whole world in there. We live in one of the best places on the planet, period. It depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for a raw experience, yeah, then get out of here.
HB: Which you did, on a recent trip to Costa Rica.
JO: I went there for research. Every once in a while I become self reflective and feel the need to regroup, and exploring landscapes was one of those things. Working in landscape injected this romantic pastoral impulse into me. It just takes over you. The sense of wonder makes you want to wander. A lot of my current paintings, and their feelings, is trying to transmit some of that. It’s one of the things I like about the form—making visual things that are hard to express in language. People just get it, and that’s what makes someone cry, if you’re lucky.
HB: How exactly is that expression transmuted onto the canvas?
JO: I’m interested in indirect ways of experience—to do something through refraction, rather than reflection. It’s like star gazing, but the thing is you can never look directly at a star, and not a lot of people know that. When someone asks me what are you trying to say with your paintings, I never know what to say. It’s too direct a question.
HB: But I can ask you what’s been on your mind.
JO: Most of my work right now is about drifting… wandering. It all comes back to Camus’ idea of revelry—that celebration in the name of meaninglessness. That slightly distracted state when you’re lightly in search of something, but also being content if nothing comes out of it. Just peaceful. Walking is a big part of my life. Nature provides that for me. And when I’m experiencing nature, I’m making art in nature. What I’m painting about is in fact all of the things happening while I’m painting.
HB: That’s a funny way to look at it.
JO: Some of my favourite artists are landscape artists, like Peter Doig. That sense of drifting—he gets it man. I feel a kinship with him. I’d see a certain type of tree which made me think about one of his paintings, which in turn, made that particular tree more beautiful. And that’s what art does. Every great artist offers something that helps people have that kind of reaction to the world. I like to call it shared insight. Landscape brought me out of my cave, pictorially. The human figure just wasn’t enough.
HB: Now that you’re saying that, I’m really starting to get that sense of the drifting looking at some of these works before me.
JO: It allows for a lack of pragmatic thinking; and a lot of the work is basically me resisting my own temptations. I constantly triple guess myself, yet still forcing myself to leave a mark on the page, and be able to live with that. Drinking, jazz… and thankfully that goofy spirit I have inside in me has allowed me to… you’re looking at the guy with the gold tooth? [laughs hysterically]
HB: [Laughs hysterically]
JO: Love that piece! When I started that one I was actually serious, drawing this guy’s eyes and mouth, but I was also drunk, so I ended up giving him a golden tooth. It’s one of my favourite pieces not because of what it looks like, but because of the experience whilst creating it. It’s just so fucking funny!
HB: I really admire how you keep it fun.
JO: It’s just a part of my sanity. And If I don’t make good art for long enough, regularly, I don’t enjoy life as much. If I was rich, I’d feel the same. It creates a sense of wonder, to feel alive. Otherwise, I think I’d feel lost.
HB: I can say that about some of your works. The figures seem almost lost.
JO: A lot of the imagery in my new work is people who seem kind of lost. Are they together? How’d they get there? Why are they there? But they’re there, nonetheless. It has that transitional, slippery quality to it—it’s there but it’s not. There’s always a question of over or underworking it—there’s this delicate balance when a work arrives at its point of completion. It’s really about listening to it, and letting it tell you when it’s finished. And I’ve always been fascinated in this notion of finishing a painting with a single mark. I’ve experienced that in very few paintings. And that gold tooth was one of ‘em!
HB: I’ve always wondered when painters think enough is enough.
JO: For me a painting rarely ever finishes. You can avoid it or force it. But when it’s done, it tells you. I’m teaching myself to self-silence and just listen—getting my voice out of the way. And it helps distill my ideas. It’s been a goddamn struggle otherwise. Then there’s this performative aspect— the spontaneity—and that’s why I like not thinking. Things bubble up, it’s the magic of it. Every canvas just has tremendous possibility.
HB: Is that something you’re probing as part of your new body of work, or something you’re contemplating all the time?
JO: That’s my work, it’s my job. I never make two paintings the same; everything, more or less, is trying something new. And I dialogue with my own self, artists of the past and a few people alive today. Otherwise I’m making art on my own. I don’t really think about the public too much. And I’m grateful for that. It’s better to kind of embrace not knowing and go with that without pretenses. You try to acquire knowledge or pretend that you have it.
HB: From where I stand, you look like you’re constantly acquiring. You have hundreds of astonishing books in this library.
JO: It’s funny because looking in art books is looking backwards. It’s the books on contemporary artists that are currently on the rise in the world. It’s better than it’s ever been. It just doesn’t have the brackets around it to pitch it to the world. Perhaps it’s the vastness—or the diversity—of it that makes it difficult to even imagine doing that. The internet is amazing, we take all of this accessibility for granted. It’s the air we breathe now.
HB: Talking about air, that sage is coming off quite strong. I do like it though.
JO: [Chuckles] I’m very interested in fluffy new age spirituality. Bring it on man! We’re so vacant and I see so much room for it in our culture. You tell me burning some grass will cleanse my soul, I’ll do it. I burn sage and walk around my studio, hit all the walls. I learned to do this during my time on Hornby Island. They burn a lot of sage, and I was always like “what’s this stuff, it smells like skunk!” to which they said, “It burns evil spirits away”. It doesn’t burn for long, which is good. I also burn citrus oil which is supposed to wake you up, make you feel more alert.
HB: They should make you a goodwill ambassador for that place. I know it has a special place in your heart.
JO: Hornby Island changed my life. It gave me faith in the world. There are places on this planet that are mysteriously beautiful, and you just got to get out to fucking find them. They’re there more than you think they are. In a way, so are people. It’s just a state of mind. The whole thing is about getting out of your cityville. In the city, the agenda’s running the show all the time. It’s important to find your values. My values are about people—the connections we have with each other—and that’s why I’ve chosen to live in a more tight knit environment like Commercial Drive. It makes a big difference. Those serendipitous encounters with your grocer or whatever, give you faith, and keep that bubble alive.HB: But now you’re coming out into another world. Especially with the advent of this new show, so to speak.
JO: I’ve dwelled in privacy for a while, intentionally. I’ve stayed away from the gallery world as a way to keep an eye on my paintings. It keeps the pressure off my work. But at the same time you want to be making more money, so you think to yourself, let’s change it up. It’s kind of where I’m at now.
HB: Like a homecoming?
JO: I wouldn’t call it that. It’s a little bit like a relationship. It’s good be single at certain times, and to be in a relationship in other times. You can sleep with anybody, but who do you want to sleep with? You can’t address the things you need to if you’re in a relationship sometimes.
HB: Ultimately your decision has everything to do with you, and little to do with anything else.
JO: The struggle when you’re in galleries is “that was a successful show, do another one.” But hey, maybe I was thinking to change things up. There’s always expectations, indirect ones for the most part. The implication with commercial galleries is that you can’t be whipping out new bodies of work all the time. It’s unrealistic to expect them to market something that’s constantly changing. You have to be realistic with the business aspect of it. In the instance of creating something way better than what you’ve did before, they’ll always sleep with you.HB: The sexual innuendos are piling up. And I’m liking it.
[Chuckles] Very sensual! But if they don’t like what you’re doing, they’ll have nothing else to think, so they’ll always resort back to what they know. If they knew your work more intimately they may also make suggestions.
HB: It sounds convoluted. Perhaps because I’m only just getting a glimpse of the inner dynamics of it.
JO: They all have different biases, agendas. In a commercial gallery the understanding is that it’s going to be fairly conservative work, especially in Vancouver. So the whole scene here is washed out. There’s two galleries doing some edgy stuff, and the rest is pretty much paintings for people’s homes. Artist run centers are non-profit, they don’t sell the work, and the work they do have is challenging. I’ve been able work naturally, and still be a bit of the generous, people-pleasing person that I am. I’ve just tweaked my art. I’m not doing something that’s so obtuse and philosophical that I’m leaving people stranded. I’ve got a different audience in mind.
HB: Do you resent these dynamics?
JO: Just the opposite. I see some beauty in everything. But shit is shit. Pretense is shit. I love all of it, and wish there was more of it. There should be more of it! Our culture needs it, god damn it. We need to develop our anti-aesthetic, to be challenged. We’ve got to drink bad wine that’s good, and learn to like it. We’ve got to open up. The problem is people don’t have time, or at least they think they don’t.
HB: People do love your work. I myself can attest to that.
JO: I make art for myself and a handful of people. If the rest of the world likes it, great. I’m just grateful that people tend to like my work. There’s always been this feeling of “I know I should be out there” but there’s a little bit of a naughty boy thing too, like “I don’t want to play with you guys”. I want to show you something new, and move you with it.
HB: Following that analogy, do you feel like Vancouver’s that naughty boy who refrains from playing others.
JO: Vancouver deals with a hangover from photoconceptualism—The Vancouver School, spearheaded by Jeff Wall—a movement which began here. They elevated photography to a serious platform for aesthetic consideration. All that conceptual stuff thrived in Vancouver in the 70s. Back then it was a hot art scene, sort of like LA’s little brother. Of course, it all implied a deliberate hands-off—a hands off of the material. A deskilling, so to speak. Vancouver is famously conceptual and very cliquey in it’s thinking, and if you don’t belong, you’re out. So painting was left with little oxygen to breathe in Vancouver. But that’s changing.HB: There’s more opportunity for painters, sure. But it’s still a scary city to live in for most artists.
JO: I moved here in ‘94 and for me it was never about the city itself, it was about the West Coast—the Gulf Islands, Hornby in particular. Growing as a young artist in the city was fantastic; the nature in this city provides so much inspiration. The scene here is a little bit dry, which means you’re not influenced by too many people. When showing your work, there’s often a kind of dull silence, somewhere in between indifference and not fitting in. That’s ok though. That’s ultimately what turned me back into making art for myself, a hand full of colleagues, and a few heroes. Today my wife has joined this Pantheon. Regardless, it’s lost its charm, to the point where I want to leave. We’re at this time of transition—that insider/outsider dynamic. If there happens to be more integration down the road, that’s great. But I don’t see a lot of hope for that to be honest. It kind of sucks. What we’re losing as a result is our connection to the land, which is the same story for the rest of the world. That spiritual quality—the hippies—are all gone. Everyone’s too cool for school man!HB: What are we cynics to do? At least you have the ability to see the beauty in everything.
JO: Just the weeds coming breaking through the concrete is enough for me. The flowers coming out in the Spring, and Fall, when everything dies… that whole journey, it just rubs off on you. It creates this organic quality in my work, an understanding of the cycle of life and death.
HB: Now that your show is fast approaching on May 11th, are you ready to say goodbye to these works?
JO: I generally don’t like ever saying goodbye to any of them. Of course, when you finish a painting, there’s a death—the ideas come to sort of a completion. But great works of art always stay open. Some pieces feel okay to let go because they’re either going to a good home, or a good mind. If you get paid too much money for it, what a pleasure it is, lightening up someone’s home. It helps me rekindle that belief that I’m making some art people want to pay for.
HB: It’s fascinating to me, the idea that your works are in so many homes… with so many minds.
JO: I just sold a painting to a very good friend of mine, and sadly, he’s nearing the end of his life. There’s a weird and interesting feeling to that. When you sell a painting, you think about the life the painting will live in the eyes of the beholder, and in a way, it almost felt more right to give him the painting because he might soak it up more. And I’m going to miss him too.
HB: What a special connection that is.
JO: I’ve also had a pretty unique experience where one of my paintings was returned to me. I’d sold a drawing to a woman and years later I bumped into her and asked “how’s my baby doing?” So I walked into my studio the next day and there it was, with a note on top of it that read “I want you to have your baby back, don’t worry about the money”. I was so touched by that. It always comes back somehow, full circle.