British artist Oliver Dorrell is a gifted storyteller, his strange yet intimately fascinating tales of travel to places such as India and North Caucasus offer unique insight into the experience of the world. So too Dorrell’s colourful paintings seem a translation of sorts, a fantastic and painterly view into hidden places. The artist’s pictures are distinguished by a sense of imaginative narrative and are rich tapestries of folktales, mythologies and impressionistic travel vignettes. Symbolic landscapes and figures evoke a sense of mystic interludes and the artist frequently draws upon imagery from regional religious imagery, terrain and the intersections of culture and experience. Because Dorrell studied anthropology he brings to his work, a knowledgeable and yet simultaneously open mindset that allows him to take in the idea of influence, preconceived notions, meaning and as well understand the complexity of the view of the traveller or the interloper. Through this process emerges a series of pictures that are often compared to the work of Marc Chagall and yet represent a contemporary world of symbiotic experience, place and tradition.
The artist’s work has focused on various regions and is continually evolving as he constantly travelling. A series of pictures focus on North Caucasus, where Russian poet Alexander Pushkin found himself exiled in 1820. Dorrell notes that the Russian public’s understanding of the North Caucasus region is formed in part by Russian literature and is traditionally one of “a primitive war affected region.” As such, the paintings in this series reflect this mode of storytelling as embodied by the work of Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov and Leo Tolstoy but as well integrate the artist’s own influences and impressions such as the regional folk art traditions, including the style of self-taught Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani, namely the synthesis of Byzantine and Georgian religious iconography.
The great mountains evoke tradition, artistry and experience for Dorrell. The artist notes that the style is influenced in part by the flatness of Persian art while as well reflecting an interest in the decorative patterning of modernist art such as Henri Matisse. So too, Dorrell notes other sources: the tradition of polychrome wood carving featuring splendidly rendered horses and warriors as well as Sufi and pre-Islamic shamanistic motifs. We also see the loose yet calligraphic presence of mark making in the pictures, evocative of Chinese art. Dorrell shares: “I travelled around the mountains with a Dagestani Artist who had lectured for seven years at a south Chinese university. He organised a masterclass for me and other Dagestani artists and he let me use his Chinese ink and rice paper. I worked on a series of ink and brush paintings of things I saw in the mountains in a sort of Chinese style which I thought was unexpected but perhaps shows the global multi-cultural aesthetic we all draw on.”
Dorrell’s evocative paintings of this region are undeniably beautiful, divided in planes of color, each area saturated with tonal hues, giving an impression of weather and time, an ephemeral approach that defies the constraints of documentary recordings of travel and place. Many of the figures are engaged in seemingly supernatural activities, floating or flying within landscape or town scenes -symbolic of the complex traditions of the region, a place where Russian culture and hegemony is somehow disrupted by an enduringly diverse local culture.
More recently the artist held the Vishnu Manchu Art Foundation Residency, Tirupathi, South India, 2019. These pictures take cues from a vast set of interconnected motifs, experiences and traditions including Indian miniature painting, pilgrimage sites, temples, Hindu mythology as well as contemporary Indian art. A key source for this new series is the work of the fifteenth century poet Annamayya “who wrote a song a day for the god in the temple (a form of Vishnu).” The recent discovery of copper inscriptions of some 13,000 songs within a vault beneath the temple intrigues Dorrell and serves as an important source for his work. “Half of these poem/songs are metaphysical, to be sung in a male voice and represent the poet’s relationship with god, his ego, and lust, while some are devotional, and others are sarcastic and even mocking. The other half are to be sung in a female voice and are erotic poems and take on the identity of the god’s wife and girlfriends and deal with the god’s complex love life. These are wonderfully nuanced, at times they express anger over the god's cheating, his bullishness, and other times they are passionate, and or loving. As I understand it, the poems bring to the listener ways to understand the god and relate to the god on a more human level.”
It is this capturing of a moment that exists between history and the present, this multiplicity of voice, of experience, of nuance, and of integrations of tradition that distinguish Dorrell’s remarkable work, interpreted through the delightfully subjective lens of the artist’s painterly and imaginative tapestries of color, motif and symbiotic cultural impressions.
Rosa JH Berland