[March 30 2021]
Olivia Sterling’s ‘White Bread’ at Cob Gallery features an oblique riot of social commentary coded through ‘slapstick’ imagery of British children’s parties. Subtle critiques of racial contexts both past and present, are whipped up like cream in a distinctive blast of perspectives, colour and playfulness. On view now, virtually, and by appointment from April 14-24.
JETHRO TURNER – You’re originally from Peterborough, which is such a quintessentially ‘Middle England’ place and this show plays with a lot of notions around Englishness and Britishness. How do you feel that sort of messy sense of nostalgia and identity plays out in the pictures?
OLIVIA STERLING – There’s quite a nice cathedral, but it’s one of those places where there’s nothing. When you grow up where there’s nothing really to do, I suppose birthday parties feel especially amazing, and the aesthetics of those 90s and early 00s parties really bled into the painting. I was looking at my old photos and orange and yellow and green were such key colours in how people decorated houses for birthday parties. And my mum took loads of pictures of the party spreads, full of really beige foods like sausage rolls and scotch eggs. Everything feels very small and ordinary and I tried to really melt that into the paintings.
JETHRO TURNER – The boldness of the colours amplifies all of those feelings, a bit like the intense artificial colours in 90s cookbooks for kids.
OLIVIA STERLING – Exactly and, for instance, a ‘Colin the Caterpillar’ cake [a famed Marks & Spencer kids’ birthday cake – Ed.] is mostly brown but also intensely green and pink and white. The one book I based some of the paintings on, especially ‘Titivate’ and ‘How to Ice a Cake’ was a dairy book. It’s got such a weird mix of photography of awful looking puddings that even though it was the 90s look very 70s, and then wonderful, really clear cut illustrations.
JETHRO TURNER – And there’s an extra layer of social commentary that’s really integral to the paintings – there’s a reference to Cruickshank’s racist print from the 1819, ‘The New Union Club’. How did you discover that and what inspired you to load that into the paintings?
OLIVIA STERLING – I love caricature and I was searching for black figures in caricature, and this one came up. There’s a couple to the left in the midsection where it’s a black woman and a white man and they’ve made a baby and the baby’s split in half – black and white. There’s another baby that’s piebald like a horse, and it really kind of shook me to my core, especially because I think it was one of the first imaginings of what it would be like when black people moulded into British society. I just don’t know if we’ve shaken off the stereotypes that are linked to black and white bodies. Obviously racism is still here, it’s just kind of died down in a very British way. So that’s why I’ve made quite ordinary looking paintings with absurd tweaks to them in order to sort of throw you off a little bit. Caricature is just very helpful to me – it was important to transform that into the paintings to ask things like: what does it mean when you paint a white figure? What does it mean to paint a black figure?
JETHRO TURNER – You’ve worked with a kind of labelling of skin tones and colours within the images which is both coded and also completely obvious – almost paint-by-numbers. Why did you decide to integrate that?
OLIVIA STERLING – The title of the show is White Bread, and even though I didn’t make a painting of it, it refers to when you have a party and someone has labelled the sandwiches with little cocktail sticks, like ‘white bread with eggs’ or ‘brown bread with eggs’. It’s really just quite a simple symbol or metaphor to look at the binary between blackness and whiteness, and that filters out through the show, especially with covering a chocolate cake in white icing. Even though it’s very simplified it feels like how you feel as a person of colour, especially in a mostly white nation. How you are definitely one thing, but, especially if you grew up British, how you feel like another thing: you know what a Scotch egg looks like, you would have made masks out of paper plates etc. It really is trying to reframe the obvious – that this ‘otherness’ is sort of an everyday thing.
JETHRO TURNER – I love the focus on the food and how it’s so coded with identity that comes out so strongly. You capture all of that really potently.
OLIVIA STERLING – I just wanted to make something that was like a real fantasy, because obviously birthday parties are quite literally the opposite thing of what we’re doing right now under lockdown. And painting parties allows so many scenarios where I can interrogate these points of view. Especially because a lot of the paintings are from different perspectives, but they’re still watching the same sort of things happen – like someone running with a birthday cake or someone having something smeared onto them, or people sharing food or someone making a cake. I tried to make something very unifying.
Photos and interview by Jethro Turner