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PURPLE SKY, an exhibition of paintings, carvings, and crystals
By Oliver Dorman & Susan Cameron


Lily McElhone

Rooted in his training as a wood carver, Oliver Dorman has developed an art practice which makes the most of the visual properties of his media, layering acrylic gouache in varying degrees of opacity and carving timber to utilise negative space, the reflection of light, and the illusion of depth and movement. Purple Sky is a series of paintings, hand-carved wooden frames, and crystals (selected by Susan Cameron) which create and resolve tension between different media, techniques, and the emotions Dorman fuels into his process. Painted (at least partly) in-situ where Dorman saw the works throughout the day as the light passes through different areas of the gallery, and paired with crystals from a neighbouring store, Dorman’s line-up is firmly of the space in which it is exhibited.

Upon first view of Dorman’s paintings, the eye is first occupied with the geometric patterns overlaying the composition. The clarity of line and opacity of colour with which the lattices are painted form a visual barrier which obscure the more sinuous forms beneath, analytically breaking them down into their constituent parts and creating the illusion of depth and distance between the layers, a phenomenon formally known as “chromostereopsis.” Also created is the illusion that the paintings are energetic and vibrating, a concept reflected in the choices of crystals placed alongside each work by collaborator Susan Cameron, who selected them based on her own energetic impressions of the paintings and the vibrational properties believed to be held by each crystal. Dorman tells me of the attention he pays to the act of decision-making in the production of his paintings. He speaks of the joy he finds in using ruler and compass to create repeating patterns and shapes evocative of the regular atomic structure of

Cameron’s crystals; then later speaks of the importance of intuition in the decision-making process and the trust he places in his gut. There is a tension here between the mathematical and the organic, the logical and the emotional. Crystals epitomise this playoff; they are at once used for precision cutting, timekeeping, and the manufacturing of computer chips, and in divination, pagan ritual, and alternative healing practices. Those who prescribe to them would likely argue that their usefulness in alternative practices is rooted in the same properties as their usefulness in the hard sciences. Perhaps that is the whole point; that the scientific and the intuitive, the geometric and the fluid, are not as at odds with one another as we may think. They need not compete for the priority of our eye, because the two synergise in a whole that is much more interesting, important, and beautiful than either composite part could ever achieve alone.

Dorman’s hand-carved frames replicate the patterns used in the paintings they hold, carrying through this concept of wholeness, and doing away with the barrier between artwork and accessory, fine art and handicraft. The frames, in their ornamentation, are evocative of old-world décor and the lost arts, while the painted forms, too, are reminiscent of Victorian-era Spiritualist art, evoking images of elaborate séance rituals and automatic drawing. A tarot card—Temperance, representing moderation, accommodation, and the artist’s own zodiac sign of Sagittarius—rests above a column of vulvic forms in Moment in Time (2023). Considering many of the Spiritualists were interested in psychoanalytic theory, this divination device placed alongside sexual imagery feels deliciously Jungian.

Like many of the noteworthy Spiritualists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Dorman’s own liberal sexual politics bleed into his artwork, most notably in the form of the floral-cum-vulvic motifs which appear throughout the exhibition. In a conversation with Dorman over steak in an Irish pub (with an ornately carved interior, no less) he tells me of his preoccupation, artistic or otherwise, with sex—and with desire, and reproduction, and attraction and repulsion, but the emphasis remains on sex. What decisions do we make based on our sexual impulses? What are the consequences of those decisions? How did the very thing required for human survival end up so emotionally fraught and socio-politically complicated? Dorman considers the emotional extremes humans experience in the name of getting laid, and tells me of the degree to which his artworks are an outlet for those emotions. I am curious to know how he feels when he sees said emotions manifested as a column of vulvas on a canvas in front of him, but I dare not ask. I am curious to know where repulsion fits into all of this, but again, I dare not ask. I have theories, but as a woman looking at art by a man, I fear I would be doing Dorman dirty by speculating.

A master of thematic consistency, the frames too carry complex sexual and emotional connotation. The frame in The Singularity/Elemental/Good Sex/Glorified Moth Ball (2023) in particular reads, in upper-case letters carved into the frame, “FUCK YOU /ALL”. The first two words, in the upper frame, at once proposition and reject the viewer. While the “you” is confronting in its intimacy, the following “all” in the lower frame, read a split second later, transforms the personal into the collective. “Fuck you all” can be interpreted as a horn-bag’s war cry, or as a misanthrope’s famous last words. From the limited time I have spent speaking with the artist, I suspect the true meaning is both, simultaneously.

Reminiscent both of a da Vinci drawing and an ancient deity, in one corner of the exhibition stands a fecund female figure with arms either in motion or in multiples. Her face is serene, her breasts are full, and in her belly sits a foetus in the final stages of development. The geometric pattern here grounds the painting, creating weight at the bottom of the frame without obscuring the composition. The colours are muted, blues, greens, and pastel yellow surround the white central figure. In contrast to the abstracted figures and bold colours that proliferate the rest of the exhibition, Mother in the Wind and Water (2022) seems a kind of resolution, or conclusion, to all of Dorman’s anxieties, tensions, and fraught emotions. The complexities and difficulties associated with sex and reproduction have culminated in new life, seemingly on the edge of birth. The tranquillity of the image engenders hope, a certain comfort in the future, rather than a fear of what is unknown or other. The image is as much an opening as it is a conclusion. The body, having been broken down into its composite parts and obscured behind layers of tessellating shapes in other works, is here presented to us as something pure and whole and abundant.

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