For Oliver Clegg, creating a new series of paintings entails settling on a specific, concrete motif and proceeding to riff on it, mercilessly. Among his chosen subject matter over the past decade: Happy Meal toys, images for which he sourced via eBay listings and deflated balloons emblazoned with iconic cartoon characters. The focus of the Brooklyn-based artist’s latest show, “We Cat” at Journal Gallery, as one can infer from the title, is cats. Two dozen paintings, all completed this year, manifest through as many variations on the feline form.
In Miro, Clegg’s own grey tabby reclines in a blue chair. Behind it, in a mirror, the scene recedes into infinity, but its front-facing orientation indicates the presence of a second mirror just off the canvas. In imagining the physical orientation of this unseen mirror, the viewer, while gazing at the tableau, is also peering through the proverbial looking glass.
Clegg tends to embrace this cheeky manner of visual trickery—that is, built on illusionistic setups, rendered naturalistically and with spatial accuracy—across otherwise distinct bodies of work. It’s this proclivity that, approached with his technical know-how, gives rise to compositions with something of a Surrealist bent. Consider Maggie, in which a white cat’s face emerges seamlessly from a spiraling tower of soft-serve ice cream.
Cartoon characters, in Clegg’s practice, make for perennial source material—and the paintings in “We Cat” are hardly exempt. Felix portrays the titular animated cat as a hot-air balloon, while Tom offers a portrait of Tom—as in, Tom and Jerry—captured, by the looks of it, moments after the accident-prone predator’s face collided with a blunt object. Other pieces pull from a more personal realm: Clegg’s young daughter provided the red marker-rendered cat drawing replicated in Luna.
Beyond painting, Clegg has long incorporated participatory aspects into his broader practice. Take, for instance, when he hosted a “Game Day Triathlon” at Cabinet magazine’s offices in 2014, wherein players competed to win board games for a grand prize. As part of the festivities around “We Cat,” which is open over Halloween, Clegg, with Journal Gallery, is throwing a Halloween party. To enter, guests must arrive in costume—and all costumes must be cats. —Rachel Small
Oliver Clegg, Astro, 2021. Oil on linen, 40 x 30 inches.