The Literary Editor of GQ, Olivia Cole writes on Oliver Jeffers, Observations on Modern Life

Suddenly everything seemed both unsure, but also somehow, the obvious truths rose to the surface

The title of Oliver Jeffers’s modern classic Here We Are, is a turn of phrase used in Belfast, where the artist grew up, sometimes used to cover a slightly awkward silence. ‘Well, here we are...’ It was what came to mind to say when Jeffers found himself floored by the enormity of carrying his baby son home for the first time. The resulting book grew out of explaining the world around him in deceptively simple terms: first their home in Brooklyn, later the streets around the neighbourhood of their adopted home, and then the planet itself. It remains a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic and will soon provide the inspiration for an animated version made by Apple – the ultimate proof perhaps that this Northern Irish artist (born in Australia, raised in Belfast, now living in New York City) truly has a global platform for his distinctive vision of a world in which too much emphasis has been put on artificial borders.

Featured Artworks

Oliver Jeffers

This Way Up, 2018
182.9 x 284.5 cm
Matte acrylic and pigment stick on paper

Oliver Jeffers

Map of Land and Sea with Borders, 2018
129.5 x 198.1 cm
Oil and oil stick on paper

Oliver Jeffers

Divided States of America, 2018
177.8 x 152.4 cm
Oil on found map

Jeffers created his first children's book whilst still a fine art student but since becoming a father in 2016 (his son Harland is today 4, and now has a little sister, Mari, one) the two practices have become even more intertwined. There's nothing like becoming a parent to give you the bends or feel as though the world has been turned on its head. As a new father, he felt as though he "immediately went into this very weird state of macro and micro at the same time… completely focused on this tiny object, but more aware of the vastness of everything." The deceptively simple yet profound life lessons in Here We Are came out of this feeling, 'Suddenly everything seemed both unsure, but also somehow, the obvious truths rose to the surface" and enabled him to create this guide book for the planet - a kind of map for life - for his son. Drawing on work from this last decade, map making and altered perspective is central to this show too. In his largest scale painting to date, 'This Way Up', you can see the familiar contours of the continents with the poles flipped. It's geographically accurate except in its labelling which is a memorable distillation of the Oliver Jeffers world view that "you define something by how you choose to look at it."


His sense of the arbitrary and artificial way the planet has been carved up was honed in Belfast, growing up during the Troubles. "I have always loved maps," he says "and it was during my late teens when I realized they were political devices that served those who made them..." His own move to New York City allowed him to turn his own map upside down, and take a totally different view. As he recalls today, "when explaining to people that Northern Ireland was technically British, rather than being governed from Dublin, I realised how few people understood this, or - more strikingly - cared. From the distance of an ocean it suddenly felt as though the political conflict in my home city seemed like a tragic waste of energy." 

 

He's always been drawn to exploring the fluidity of man-made borders but today in both of his homes (his home city, and his adopted New York City) borders and walls have never been a more emotive subject.  The prospect of walls going up lurks in his assertion 'people live here' in place of the names of countries on one of his trademark globes (seen here at Lazinc on a smaller scale than in his recent large scale installation on the High Line) and in 'A gift of bricks from Britain' which is his riposte to the current debacle over Northern Ireland's status post Brexit. The whole show is politically charged - from Jeffers experience of what he terms a dark period, living through Trump's rise in America, and the resulting endless discourse about the movement of people, to his desire to look after the planet.   It's perhaps the responsibilities of looking after the next generation that have given these works their urgency. Looking around, again trying to observe and explain the world, rather than 'Here We Are', the works here seem to ask questions instead: 'where are we?', or perhaps is this really where we are at?  And what's more, where we want to be?

Jeffers created his first children's book whilst still a fine art student but since becoming a father in 2016 (his son Harland is today 4, and now has a little sister, Mari, one) the two practices have become even more intertwined. There's nothing like becoming a parent to give you the bends or feel as though the world has been turned on its head. As a new father, he felt as though he "immediately went into this very weird state of macro and micro at the same time… completely focused on this tiny object, but more aware of the vastness of everything." The deceptively simple yet profound life lessons in Here We Are came out of this feeling, 'Suddenly everything seemed both unsure, but also somehow, the obvious truths rose to the surface" and enabled him to create this guide book for the planet - a kind of map for life - for his son. Drawing on work from this last decade, map making and altered perspective is central to this show too. In his largest scale painting to date, 'This Way Up', you can see the familiar contours of the continents with the poles flipped. It's geographically accurate except in its labelling which is a memorable distillation of the Oliver Jeffers world view that "you define something by how you choose to look at it."


His sense of the arbitrary and artificial way the planet has been carved up was honed in Belfast, growing up during the Troubles. "I have always loved maps," he says "and it was during my late teens when I realized they were political devices that served those who made them..." His own move to New York City allowed him to turn his own map upside down, and take a totally different view. As he recalls today, "when explaining to people that Northern Ireland was technically British, rather than being governed from Dublin, I realised how few people understood this, or - more strikingly - cared. From the distance of an ocean it suddenly felt as though the political conflict in my home city seemed like a tragic waste of energy." 

 

He's always been drawn to exploring the fluidity of man-made borders but today in both of his homes (his home city, and his adopted New York City) borders and walls have never been a more emotive subject.  The prospect of walls going up lurks in his assertion 'people live here' in place of the names of countries on one of his trademark globes (seen here at Lazinc on a smaller scale than in his recent large scale installation on the High Line) and in 'A gift of bricks from Britain' which is his riposte to the current debacle over Northern Ireland's status post Brexit. The whole show is politically charged - from Jeffers experience of what he terms a dark period, living through Trump's rise in America, and the resulting endless discourse about the movement of people, to his desire to look after the planet.   It's perhaps the responsibilities of looking after the next generation that have given these works their urgency. Looking around, again trying to observe and explain the world, rather than 'Here We Are', the works here seem to ask questions instead: 'where are we?', or perhaps is this really where we are at?  And what's more, where we want to be?

Featured Artworks

Oliver Jeffers

He Came, He Saw, He Conquered, 2019
55.9 x 76.2 cm
Mixed media collage

Oliver Jeffers

Isolationists of the World Unite, 2019
81.3 x 38.1 cm Diameter of base: 20.3 cm
Mixed media on found globe

Oliver Jeffers

Mental Walls, 2019
55.9 x 76.2 cm Framed: 68 x 87 x 4.5 cm
Acrylic and mixed media on paper

Oliver Jeffers

We, Me, 2019
129.5 x 183 cm
Oil on oil paper

As a result, some of his observations for viewers are quite tough.  'He came, he saw, he conquered' shows a seemingly innocent little boy with a bow and arrow out and about exploring, until you realise the collaged back drop is old picture book illustrations of extinct species lost forever. In one of his trademark globes, a phrase that could be a lover's whisper, 'I think we're alone now' simultaneously taps into the romantic hankering we have for the moon, but is also the logical extension of the isolationist agenda that fills the American airwaves.  Whilst Mexico might be the focus of Trump's ire today, it's not so long ago that Irish immigration to the US would be capped at certain figures, as well as the Irish-American population subjected to appalling discrimination.

 

While Oliver Jeffers subjects can be as serious as they get, verbal play and playfulness is a key element to these observations.  There's a lightness of touch - there too in the colloquial yet lyrical phrases that you encounter if you hear Jeffers talk about his own work - that's everywhere in his use of text, a long-time feature of his work. This always appears in his distinctive all upper-case hand.  His captions can be slogans or jokes or intimacies created between the artist and the viewer. That ability to entertain was perhaps first honed as a child himself when Jeffers would spend hours drawing for his mother, who had MS, when she had to be based in bed. The poignantly elegiac note that you can find in his work too, makes sense knowing that he came of age as an artist and childrens' author having already lost his mother in 2000, when he was just 23. 

 

The loneliness of modern life is a Jeffers obsession.  When pressed on what it is he's hankering for, he tells me, "In an age of newer/better/faster… I fear humanity is moving faster than it can keep up with… I'd encourage people to consider what it is they have and what it is they are moving on from at break neck speed. As for what's lost in the process, I think is a sense of community. We used to support each other at an intimate level than we do anymore… As Sebastian Junger said in his book 'Tribe', "modernization breeds isolation."  It's typical of Jeffers that when on a visit to China to his publishers' printing factory, he was astounded at the scale of production, and the reduction of human life to so many cogs in a vast machine. He couldn't stop taking photographs of the process and reflecting on the production chain for his books, his reaction as an artist was to zero in on the particular and distinct, creating 'Me, We' (flipping Mohammed Ali's poem, 'We, Me). Here there are five individual portraits of these factory workers with their distinct identities and expressions of personal taste represented in their tea mugs, all different in a sea of uniformity.

As a result, some of his observations for viewers are quite tough.  'He came, he saw, he conquered' shows a seemingly innocent little boy with a bow and arrow out and about exploring, until you realise the collaged back drop is old picture book illustrations of extinct species lost forever. In one of his trademark globes, a phrase that could be a lover's whisper, 'I think we're alone now' simultaneously taps into the romantic hankering we have for the moon, but is also the logical extension of the isolationist agenda that fills the American airwaves.  Whilst Mexico might be the focus of Trump's ire today, it's not so long ago that Irish immigration to the US would be capped at certain figures, as well as the Irish-American population subjected to appalling discrimination.

 

While Oliver Jeffers subjects can be as serious as they get, verbal play and playfulness is a key element to these observations.  There's a lightness of touch - there too in the colloquial yet lyrical phrases that you encounter if you hear Jeffers talk about his own work - that's everywhere in his use of text, a long-time feature of his work. This always appears in his distinctive all upper-case hand.  His captions can be slogans or jokes or intimacies created between the artist and the viewer. That ability to entertain was perhaps first honed as a child himself when Jeffers would spend hours drawing for his mother, who had MS, when she had to be based in bed. The poignantly elegiac note that you can find in his work too, makes sense knowing that he came of age as an artist and childrens' author having already lost his mother in 2000, when he was just 23. 

 

The loneliness of modern life is a Jeffers obsession.  When pressed on what it is he's hankering for, he tells me, "In an age of newer/better/faster… I fear humanity is moving faster than it can keep up with… I'd encourage people to consider what it is they have and what it is they are moving on from at break neck speed. As for what's lost in the process, I think is a sense of community. We used to support each other at an intimate level than we do anymore… As Sebastian Junger said in his book 'Tribe', "modernization breeds isolation."  It's typical of Jeffers that when on a visit to China to his publishers' printing factory, he was astounded at the scale of production, and the reduction of human life to so many cogs in a vast machine. He couldn't stop taking photographs of the process and reflecting on the production chain for his books, his reaction as an artist was to zero in on the particular and distinct, creating 'Me, We' (flipping Mohammed Ali's poem, 'We, Me). Here there are five individual portraits of these factory workers with their distinct identities and expressions of personal taste represented in their tea mugs, all different in a sea of uniformity.

Featured Artworks

Oliver Jeffers

He Was Only Trying to Help, 2017
121.9 x 121.9 x 4.8 cm Framed: 134 x 134 x 8 cm
Oil, acrylic, and coloured pencil on found film still

Oliver Jeffers

Recalculating..., 2019
35.6 x 71.1 cm
Oil on found painting in antique frame

Oliver Jeffers

No Vacancy, 2019
59.7 x 80 cm
Acrylic and coloured pencil on found canvas

Perhaps it's the spectre of the new inventions that supposedly make our life better (but in fact make us poorer) that's there in his revisionist King Kong for 2017. 'He was only trying to help' is its title and the hand written caption offered by the artist, as the skyscrapers crumple like tin cans and the blonde heroine is tossed aside like a doll.  If modern life has left us lonelier than ever before, then a shared joke becomes a kind of political stance in itself and Observations on Modern Life is full of them. 

 

If the world is as we make it if only we're willing to take a different view, then that's true of artistic practice, too.  In the perfect fusion of medium and message, in his 'disaster' painting series Jeffers works with found paintings, before adding extra stories and action to their landscapes.  Working in endlessly gentrifying Brooklyn, 'found,' can literally mean rescued. Jeffers says he is astonished at the things that people throw away: like these Romantic American oil paintings that have gone out of fashion or (aptly) the perfect seat for his studio that he fished out of a skip and had reupholstered. These disaster paintings have already witnessed one calamity before the scenes they depict - the 'disaster' being their own discarding. Once treasures, now trash then treasure again, Jeffers paints his own narratives onto them: like a father and son, driving their cart away from a pastoral scene going up in flames ('Nothing to worry about, 2019) or 'Recalculating, 2019 in which an action movie car, perhaps following the sat-nav - the modern navigators map for everyday - is seen plunging off course into a river.   There's wit here but also real poignancy in the pastoral scene of redwood forests to which Jeffers has added a huge neon billboard. 'No Vacancy'. This perhaps denotes the hotelier-turned-president's attempt to re-categorise vast swathes of staggeringly beautiful national park in the United States as ripe for property development.

 

In Oliver Jeffers' books like The Day the Crayons Quit, Stuck, or This Moose Belongs to Me, paintings, letter writing, picture books and vintage picture post cards are a feature of his illustration too.  The humanism you see in his work, makes his physical hankering for these lost mediums perfect for his world view. There's a hankering for a world where news travelled slowly, but also perhaps a resilience too, with all these second chances brought to life in his work again, that chimes with the hopefulness and optimism in the act of turning the map on its head, and in being able to imagine how the world might look to someone who has just arrived here.  For an artist, there's always this potentiality -the prospect of new ways of looking.  Jeffers gift is to take what's second nature to an artist and to ask how we might bring it into our everyday life too.  It's hard to argue with "observations" when they are as vibrant, witty and heart-felt as these.

Perhaps it's the spectre of the new inventions that supposedly make our life better (but in fact make us poorer) that's there in his revisionist King Kong for 2017. 'He was only trying to help' is its title and the hand written caption offered by the artist, as the skyscrapers crumple like tin cans and the blonde heroine is tossed aside like a doll.  If modern life has left us lonelier than ever before, then a shared joke becomes a kind of political stance in itself and Observations on Modern Life is full of them. 

 

If the world is as we make it if only we're willing to take a different view, then that's true of artistic practice, too.  In the perfect fusion of medium and message, in his 'disaster' painting series Jeffers works with found paintings, before adding extra stories and action to their landscapes.  Working in endlessly gentrifying Brooklyn, 'found,' can literally mean rescued. Jeffers says he is astonished at the things that people throw away: like these Romantic American oil paintings that have gone out of fashion or (aptly) the perfect seat for his studio that he fished out of a skip and had reupholstered. These disaster paintings have already witnessed one calamity before the scenes they depict - the 'disaster' being their own discarding. Once treasures, now trash then treasure again, Jeffers paints his own narratives onto them: like a father and son, driving their cart away from a pastoral scene going up in flames ('Nothing to worry about, 2019) or 'Recalculating, 2019 in which an action movie car, perhaps following the sat-nav - the modern navigators map for everyday - is seen plunging off course into a river.   There's wit here but also real poignancy in the pastoral scene of redwood forests to which Jeffers has added a huge neon billboard. 'No Vacancy'. This perhaps denotes the hotelier-turned-president's attempt to re-categorise vast swathes of staggeringly beautiful national park in the United States as ripe for property development.

 

In Oliver Jeffers' books like The Day the Crayons Quit, Stuck, or This Moose Belongs to Me, paintings, letter writing, picture books and vintage picture post cards are a feature of his illustration too.  The humanism you see in his work, makes his physical hankering for these lost mediums perfect for his world view. There's a hankering for a world where news travelled slowly, but also perhaps a resilience too, with all these second chances brought to life in his work again, that chimes with the hopefulness and optimism in the act of turning the map on its head, and in being able to imagine how the world might look to someone who has just arrived here.  For an artist, there's always this potentiality -the prospect of new ways of looking.  Jeffers gift is to take what's second nature to an artist and to ask how we might bring it into our everyday life too.  It's hard to argue with "observations" when they are as vibrant, witty and heart-felt as these.

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