Kentridge has probably influenced every artist in Johannesburg or SA, but it was not unexpected this would be so, given Olivier spent his days working on Kentridge’s art, leaving only his nights free to explore his own. Setting up the Workhorse Foundry stole more time from developing it, though Olivier suggests the time limit kept him focused and fuelled his hunger to make art. "I had planned on putting my own work aside for five years and concentrating on the foundry, but there was always a request to do a work for an art fair, a show there and here and it felt like opportunities would slip away if I didn’t carry on," he says.
Olivier says he has struggled to "reclaim charcoal drawing from Kentridge" yet his works in this medium are compelling in their own right. The scale of his drawings and collages are impressive. They are so large (almost a metre in height), they read like monuments and echo the scale of his sculptures, which tower over you in the Circa gallery. In relation to the drawings, this device was designed to make "you the subject" of the artwork, he says.
Initially, the drawings served a practical purpose: to test the scale of the sculptures in a landscape.
"There are so many problems with sculptures; how does it stand without falling over? In the drawings, I try to push that three-dimensional form, sense the depth of the object."
He has solved the quandary, arriving at a series of deceptively simple sculptures, which are inspired by Dogon material culture. "They created vessels for the dead to return," he says. As the title 100 Generations of Soil implies, he is concerned with history and ancestry but more importantly, as an artist, he is trying to understand (or marvel) at the urge to make art, which transcends time and cultural differences.
The result is sculptures that read as objects created at the intersection between art, architecture and perhaps even primitive religious or ritualistic iconography. "I want to imitate but discover something new in the imitation," he says.
He is able to conjure visual drama and evoke atmosphere, though none of this is as calculated as it may sound. He follows Kentridge’s dictum to make work (intuitively), rather than pondering too long about what it is or should be.
Curiously, this has led him to a contemplative space.
An eponymous drawing, which features an empty, dry landscape dominated on the one end by what appears to be the remnants of a structure, leads the mind in all sorts of directions. That is after spending a good 10 minutes simply processing it. It is hard to decide whether you have entered the future or the past. Tying in with his preoccupation with ancient sculptural forms, this plugs into Olivier’s notion that humankind has to remain connected to its roots in order to survive.
"We have to try and remember the past so we can live in the present," he says.
100 Generations of Soil showed at Circa Gallery in Cape Town. It will show at the Dylan Lewis sculpture garden from mid-June through to August.
-Corrigall is an art consultant.