Interview with Adriana Oliver by Isabel Tejeda

I come across the work of Adriana Oliver, a Catalan painter born in 1990 whose discourse is located somewhere between post-pop and a minimalisation of the image with a critical and feminist reading. In her work, Oliver uses flatness (inherited from pop art and in turn from Japanese prints and comics), and also a muted palette of browns, greys, blacks and whites as a base, which obviously refers to black and white photography sepia-tinged. But I am interested in the fact that she uses graphic art as one of her favourite instruments and means of production (a graphic art that was so useful to European pop, especially Spanish pop, heir to Estampa Popular). In her editions she repeats the image (today, with the current graphic formulas, one can keep going ad infinitum) and strengthens the sense of reiteration, of following a model, which runs through her work. They are bodies that are no longer incarnated, but deep in performativity, theatricalised, posing in ways that are always similar, which makes them all equal (and which the photographic studios always disseminated on the basis of similar compositions, backdrops, and stage sets). This is the great truth that they “hide” at first glance: the visibility of the constructs to the point of their codification.

We begin our conversation in a way that was once atypical, and is now so commonplace that we find it even logical… She answers me while up in the air, thousands of metres away as she flies over the Atlantic on her way to New York. Here is our dialogue, positioned at a moment characterised by the reconstruction of the feminist genealogy of pop.

Tejeda: Ostensibly, you paint portraits that a more profound and reflexive reading would actually qualify as “anti-portraits”. You deconstruct images of people that in reality are playing roles, stereotypes in which questions of gender and different cultural backgrounds intersect. At first I thought that this was a work based on the photographic portraits of the 1950s and 1960s, heirs to the cartes de visite [calling cards], portraits that imitated the poses of Hollywood actors and actresses (as Professor María Rosón has analysed for the Spanish case). However, and this is where my mistake would lay, the original image from which you start comes from an even more fictionalised reality, that of a cinema and its photo-fixe that constructs and at the same time reiterates and disseminates stereotypes. There is a work of distillation, of highlighting the erasure of the particular, which assimilates what is represented with some imagery that converts all individuals practically into “the same”. You attack the root of the problem turning the screw once again, with a twist, as these stereotypes projected by the mass media become models to follow, a trap that ensnared the people of those generations who had to adapt, put on a corset, a mask (a corset that in reality is no different from the current situation, with everyone thoroughly besotted, influenced and trapped by social media). In women, be they Western or Eastern, this has been analysed quite a lot, but the nature of the norm affects men just as much, who are also shaped by the stereotypes of heterosexual masculinity.

I’m particularly interested in the fact that you were originally a photographer but then turned to painting so as to refer again to photography as stereotypical imagery, but that you also start from a fictionalised story/set of imagery with the appearance of truth. It’s like a double deconstruction. Cinema is a first filter –you make it evident- in this construction of the system that profoundly marks social relationships, the roles of a whole generation. A system that also crosses borders, thus generating a certain acculturation and the appropriation of alien imagery.

Oliver: Painting has offered me the possibility of having no limits in the production of images, of being able to represent almost the opposite of what the inherited concept of the portrait itself and its meaning implies, of representing scenes that are almost like photograms. In my work I delve into the exchange of gender roles, posing identity as an aporia; I can fantasise with what is represented, evidencing stereotypes in order to be able to transform them to offer another set of imagery. I refer to same-sex relationships, the role of women and men in society, the stigmatisation of gender, and the relationship and exchange between them. To give voice to the concept of family unity in order to value it more than ever, since we are living in a much more individualised society that is losing the values of unity, group, family hierarchy, knowing how to share, or sacrificing oneself for the family and its nucleus.

Tejeda: It is very interesting that your work is linguistically based on Pop (born at the end of the 1950s and which prevailed as a language in the following decade (in Spain until the 1970s). I don’t know if you consider yourself an heir to these linguistic formulas. Of course, in the language you use for the representation of these characters I find national references (I think for example of the “spectators” in Equipo Crónica, from 1972), but also in Wesselmann or even creators of the following post-pop generation, such as Julian Opie. But in the idea of the erasure of identity that you profess there is a certain minimalisation that reiterates over and over again the same idea in a very methodical way (I refer to the minimal more as a concept than as a creative tenet of the neo-avant-gardes).

Oliver: Wesselmann, Equipo Crónica, Julian Opie… and I can add Alex Katz to the authors you have mentioned; they have all been references for me since I started painting. I saw and learned a lot from their paintings before I started to create my own language. Minimalisation in my work is a very important element, important to the point that the representation of my characters seems almost like geometric shapes that if you separate them from each other, they are reduced to basic shapes, almost blocks. When united they have a meaning and coherence, but separated, they are lost.

Tejeda: In your work we can perceive political positions that, in addition to starting from a critique of the languages of the mass media, specifically cinema (I allude here with the recent interpretation in a political key of historical pop art in a rescue of the margins, of those alternative proposals to the Anglo-American option), it also connects with the recently made-visible work of the feminist painters of the 60s and 70s as a first reference, but also of artists of the following generation who, like Cindy Sherman, worked with cinematographic stereotypes (in her case on the basis of a fictionalised photograph). Sherman also generated “anti-self-portraits” by making female stereotypes visible, using the same face, her own. It is a conceptually similar process, as I understand it; you eliminate personal traits to turn each of the characters into “oneself”. You dispense with the particular in order to reconstruct the imagery of a generation, and from this distillation only the poses, the attributes (as classical iconography would call them) remain.

Oliver: Film stereotypes were the starting point for my beginnings; when I started my training as a photographer I put a lot of emphasis on film images from the 1950s and 1960s; in these films, light was used in a much more dramatic way, with considerable contrast and with a different elaboration than in today’s film practice. I also learned and read a lot about Barbara Kruger and how she worked with iconography.

In that sense, those were images that grabbed my attention from the beginning so the representation in the end was based on that particular frame. I like to think that, in my work, in that representation of the frame sometimes you can get the feeling that there are certain things that are left up in the air, like how that scene continues or where exactly that image comes from.


Alicante, 19 February 2023