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The vanity of humanity is met face on by city artist

A Birmingham artist is taking a new exhibition to LA. He talks to Graham Young about capturing the human face in his work.

Examples of work by Birmingham artist Oliver Jones in his Digbeth studio.
Examples of work by Birmingham artist Oliver Jones in his Digbeth studio.

Six after graduating with a first class Fine Art degree from Birmingham City University’s School of Art, Oliver Jones is again making waves in the international art world.

In 2009 he was the overall winner of a London SaLon Gallery competition to find the UK’s Future Greats for an exhibition at New York’s White Box Gallery.

Now 28, he’s about to jet off to LA with some of his perceptive, challenging and sometimes disturbing chalk and pastel drawings of the human face.

One of them is the shocking depiction of his own six-month-old daughter, Eve, who is portrayed as being ready for the kind of ‘designer baby’ plastic surgery that would surely make any infant more beautiful.

The work, completed in the A3 Project Space and Studios which Oliver co-founded in Digbeth, is an interpretation of a single photograph that fitted the bill after he had taken a whole series of pictures of Eve.

“Today’s science, coupled with commerce that appeals to society’s vain traits, means that humanity no longer has to leave everything down to nature,” says Oliver.

“We feel that we also need to be part of the design.”

As with all of his pieces, the chalk and pastels combine to create what he describes as “a translucent sense of human fragility”.

Equally, his precision is so well defined, there’s an underlying strength, too – while such works are vulnerable to moisture and the human touch it’s also true they can last for hundreds of years if cared for properly.

Soon, Oliver will be accompanying his Love The Skin You’re In collection when it is transported to a leading Los Angeles gallery called Gusford, close to Sunset Boulevard.

He isn’t expecting to be bringing many – if any – of them back once they go on show from September 12 to October 25.

Nor will it bother him if he never sees any of them again.

After each piece is finished – one at a time over a typical six-week period – he’s always ready to let them go to buyers.

“I am only excited when I am doing them,” says Oliver, originally from Shropshire, but now living in south west Birmingham.

“It sounds stupid, getting up in the middle of the night, but you have to ride the waves when you get them.

“As soon as they are done, I lose interest, though sometimes I enjoy seeing them if I haven’t seen them for a long time.”

Birmingham artist Oliver Jones in his Digbeth studio.
Birmingham artist Oliver Jones in his Digbeth studio.

He once drew his wife’s grandfather, only for the work to fall over and hit him on the head.

“I get really annoyed if they get damaged,” he rails.

Not only did Oliver then resent the hours he had to spend redoing an image for the first time, his subject was so close to home he typically didn’t like the second version either.

Oliver’s laser-sharp technique seems to be in defiance of the softness of the chalk and pastel materials used.

Like Birmingham’s pioneering artist John Salt before him, it could be described as photorealistic. But Oliver says he is driven to go beyond replicating the obvious – not least because he finds the process of reproducing an image like his granddad’s Morris Minor with its reflections rather laborious.

“I want to see what an artist is saying, other than just reprocessing a photograph,” he says.

“There are people who make art and people who make pictures.

“Art has to have something desirable about the world, rather than just making pictures.

“That’s what grabs me when I am trying to decipher what they are telling me.

“An artist’s job is to decipher the world around us.”

Much of mankind’s current thinking has been influenced by the digital revolution going on all around us.

Oliver doesn’t bother with Facebook, but is equally aware of its influence.

“It’s a very strange psyche,” he observes.

“Why do people need to put thousands of photographs up there of themselves?

“It’s a very peculiar thing.

“This is where the whole body of work is stemming from, and it seems to be driven by industry and the media – the Average Joe trying to achieve something that’s not their everyday self.

“Social interaction now is just so far removed from what we had, so I often wonder: “How would artists from the past react to society

To Oliver, art is all about challenging our perceptions.

And, to do that, he is currently fascinated with our obsession of what is perfection, whether it’s drawing a human face, part of a pig’s head, a varied collection of sets of human teeth or even a whole – and very splayed – supermarket chicken.

With several examples in his studio, he clearly has no problem doing interpretive self-portraits, either.

“That’s not unusual, but I am not trying to make myself look ‘nice’, to put it bluntly,” says Oliver. A teenage sweetheart from their Shropshire school days, his French-teaching wife Georg (Georgina) clearly doesn’t mind the way he’s portrayed her face in gold leaf.

As clever as Oliver’s works are, there’s also an endearing obviousness which makes them accessible.

Increasingly, he’s even dispensed with people’s necks to emphasise their faces.

His earlier works are big pieces measuring 6ft x 7ft (180cm x 220cm) and he enjoys working on that scale.

But then transportation can easily damage them, even if they end up in very heavy Perspex cases.

Another issue which some artists never resolve is when to finish – and let a piece go.

“If you go back to a drawing, you start to become a bit precious with it,” Oliver explains.

“And once you start to become precious, there’s no energy.”

In contrast to the artists who sit in Leicester Square offering caricatures of celebrities as an example of how they can draw tourists, he cites London-trained artist Jason Brooks’ recent portrayal of Kate Moss as the kind of influence he likes.

Though Jason’s works have been described online as ‘paintings that look just like photographs’, Oliver says: “Jason is saying something about an individual. There is a clear difference.

“If I drew a celebrity, people would take it as a drawing of a celebrity and that would be detrimental to this body of work.”

* Oliver Jones: Love The Skin You’re In will be partly on display in his A3 studio when it opens as part of Digbeth First Friday on July 4 from 6-8pm. Visit for details of all exhibitions, late-night openings, and special events. For more details about Oliver and his work, visit: or


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