• Oliver King

ESSAY: Dress Code: Beyond the Limits of the Canvas by Dina Jezdic

"Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society." - Mark Twain

Every day we judge others. We gaze at the clothes people wear as if they are a reliable social, cultural and economic barometer. We look at them to avoid the accountability of having to think too hard about the humanity that may be cradled within them. Unfulfilled hopes, unrealised relationships, or the lesser-known miracles of gentleness, tenderness, warmth and vulnerability.

Oliver King is known for his skilful use of a wide variety of media and visual references. Saturated with rebellious and unrestrained Dada-spirit, we are presented by layers of cheerfulness and irony bringing art and life together. In the true artistic style of Merz (from German word for commerce - Kommerz), first conceptualized by Kurt Schwitters and synonymous for his own approach to Dada, King groups his materials into a psychological collage and creates sculptural relationships with forms. Using the process of relationalism, which defines a thing by its context, we are confronted by the power of intimacy and familial subject matter, the most personal aspects of the artist's life, to lead us into concealed histories. Through his exercise of layering, the work is an intimate portrait of his paternal relationship, his ongoing interest in their complicated past, reconstituted and recovered autoethnographically through clothing.

Many of the featured canvases explore the status symbolism that clothes have historically journeyed - from being advertised to being purchased, and then as it is with status, being passed down. The works are an attempt to articulate an expansive view of the parent-child experience, to reveal something more true than fact. King's practice is about turning the inside to reveal on the outside, collapsing it and conjuring it to overturn the boundaries of painting and sculpture.

Composed of various pieces of clothing, from pants to wedding suit jackets, underwear, sometimes photographs of clothes, the canvas incorporates the composition, colour, aesthetic and formal structuring experienced in sculpture. Through rendering and enlargement, the artist's groin is hidden on the surface of the canvas using abstraction as a hiding spot. Building on the layers, is the intervention process of the two-dimensional surface towards the three-dimensional crumpling and manipulation. This is both vulnerable and performative. The result is a typical Dada gesture of crushing the division between the audience and the artist, by letting the everyday life spill out in front of us. King is obsessively upturning the self, in an attempt to resolve and understand the current cultural landscape - the white male heteropatriarchy.

Although not intentionally humorous, the work reveals the touch of the absurd. Unrestricted by the field of the canvas, the garments are a vehicle of colour and surface, extending the limits of the pictorial medium. The effect is the tension that remains. The ghosts in their shells let us see vulnerability as power. Instead of weaponizing the fragility through defensiveness, King uses his experience as a vessel for empathy. It is all heart.

What we are experiencing is a person beside their father inside a life. A visual parataxis made up of bodies and clothes placed side-by-side without conjunction. Using hybridity and transformation, where father and son are intertwined and balanced without imposing levels of subordination between them.

I wonder if in gazing towards the stack of clothes donated to the artist by his father, we are also witnessing a discarded wrapper of a candy left in the pocket of the trousers displayed. Could we, the audience be capable of unwrapping it with our eyes to hold it in our understanding of our own familial intimacies? Could we whisper back our shipwrecked secrets in exchange, take them out of our closets and release them into the world?

We all know what it is to want from our parents, and how much of that wanting is a desire to be seen, loved and accepted. As children this is how we learn to be vulnerable and to openly ask for things we need. When we are denied that primal want, we pretend to want something else entirely, to avoid the shame of rejection, supplication and insignificance.

It is hard not to look at the work without a directed care, the way a parent stares at a child - marvelling at it for too long. It brings together feelings and memories that spill out of the crisp formality of a suit business jacket. They have the same father and belong to the one family. Instead of looking at these as a sequence of works, they really are one large picture.

And so, we are moved, dreaming of a happy ending.


  1. I was one of the first in my class to graduate from writing with a pencil to a fountain pen because my writing was so good 2022, Digital Print on Acrylic and Mixed Media. 1180H x 840 x 50mm (variable) Copyright The Artist

  2. I started taking clarinet lessons when I was nine years old. Some people thought I was interested in jazz. I just liked the feeling of my tongue on the reed. And it was better than playing the recorder. 2022, Digital Print on Acrylic and Mixed Media. 1180H x 840 x 50mm (Variable) Copyright The Artist

  3. 3:30am I worry. 9:30am I worry on a phone call to an ex-work colleague. She asks me to rate my life out of 10. Right now. At this very moment. “Is it 7/10? Is it 9/10?” she pressures. I feel anxious 2022, Digital Print on Acrylic (Ed. 1/3 + 1AP) 300H x 250 x 20mm Copyright The Artist

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