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Interview with Christopher Orr

The conversation of the Artist and August Künnapu took place in the British Film Institute Restaurant, London, November 12, 2007.

Chris, you come from Scotland, but you’ve been living in London for 6 years now. Please compare Scottish and British culture or Scottishness and Britishness.

Or Englishness. I’ve never felt peculiarly Scottish or nationalistic. I’ve always considered myself a British person. I don’t think there’s a huge difference living in Glasgow or living in London, although London is a much more multicultural city.

You mentioned once that in your teenage years you played guitar in various punk bands. Please tell me about that period.

Just when I left school in 1984, I joined a punk band. We played in some clubs in Glasgow and Edinburgh. It lasted for a year or two. We travelled and performed quite a lot with a punk band from Edinburgh. Then I got fed up being in the bands and wanted to move on and do something else.


Christopher Orr. Elsewhere Begins Here.
Oil on linen, 18,5 x 15 cm, 2006.

So you were interested in the spirituality of punk and now you can use that experience in your painting in a way.

I was interested in the graphics of the album covers of early punk bands from 1977–76, their cut and paste aesthetics, where letters were cut from newspapers and placed on top of images. I really like Jamie Reed, who did the artwork for Sex Pistols. And also posters from that period.

As an artist, you started as a cartoonist.

I wanted to be a comic artist, but worked in early nineties as a graphic artist in a small printing company, which at that time didn’t have computers. So all the artwork was done in the darkroom and using the cut and paste aesthetics. I showed my comics to someone in the printing house and she recommended me to go to an art school. My first paintings were kind of naive and I didn’t know much about art history. I spent four years trying to get into the Glasgow School of Art, but I eventually got in Dundee, where I did my BA.

Christopher Orr. Untitled (Transmission).
Oil on canvas, 24 x 19 cm, 2003.

Your paintings are very tiny, sometimes even smaller than their reproductions in the magazines. Does it come from the size of your comics?

At the art school in Scotland, I did abstract paintings. I wasn’t very convinced in them. So I found small wooden boxes and decided to paint some landscapes on them. I took the same sort of imagery that I used while doing the abstract paintings. I used both natural and artificial images in my paintings. For instance, I added explosions from Star War films to traditional Flemish style paintings.

And you were also interested in different old-school science magazines?

That came a bit later, when I went to the Royal College of Art. At that time, I was still working on the small landscape paintings. I was interested in the signs of human presence – someone had been there or some human activity had taken place.

So began the next stage, where I populated the paintings. This is where I started to use old magazines. There was a pile of National Geographic magazines from 1960ies that I bought in the market. It was the first time I painted figures from photographic sources. The figures were from different pages. I decided to go back to collages. All the figures were painted the same size as they were reproduced in the magazines. So I ended up with landscapes populated by figures of different scale.

There is a special kind of light in your paintings also used by some of the Old Masters. Please comment.

I have always looked at the Old Masters, like Rembrandt and some of the Flemish landscape painters. Or people like Turner, Caspar David Friedrich and some romantic German painters. Sometimes their sky, or use of light, is more important than the landscapes in the paintings.


Have you made any copies of the Old Masters’ works to study their composition?

Recently, I have taken some figures from the Old Masters and made some sketches on paper. I have only done one copy of the Rembrandt painting ”Woman Bathing” from National Gallery.

You told me recently that you participated in a show in London, where the Old Masters and Young Masters were juxtaposed.

Yes, that show was called ”Old School” in Colnaghi Space in Bond Street in London. Colnaghi deals a lot with Old Masters from 19th century. And Hauser & Wirth Gallery got access to some of its collection. The show was mixed up, there was an Old Master next to a young painter. From the Old Masters, there were featured among others Cranach and Brueghel. Most of the paintings were not so familiar to people. There were different connections, e.g. some animals kept reappearing in both generations artists work.

You just had a solo exhibition in Hauser & Wirth Gallery in Zurich. Please tell me how your work has changed compared to your debut show ”In Between Days” in IBID Projects, London in 2003?

At my first show, I exhibited five very tiny paintings. I was a student at the Royal College then. In Zurich, there was much more work, but the themes were similar. I’ve been working recently on some old scientific 35 mm slides bringing in elements of teaching – school kids biology and botany.

Christopher Orr. Bathers. Oil on linen, 20 x 20 cm, 2005.

Christopher Orr. Untitled (Birds).
Oil on linen, 20,5 x 20,5 cm, 2004.

When you work on the slides do you always change the composition, colours and light?

Yes. I project the slide, take a photograph, take some imagery from the photo and work on it. I change the colours and light, make some parts bigger or smaller than they should be or add new bits to them, working sometimes on computer.

In this way you make the image your own.

Yes. It is nice to work on a slide meant for teaching and taken as a scientific fact.

Christopher Orr. Untitled (Mist).
Oil on canvas, 32,5 x 24 cm, 2003.

Christopher Orr. Untitled (Premonition).
Oil on linen, 16 x 19,5 cm, 2007.

Your paintings are generally around 20 x 25 cm. Have you ever painted 3 x 5 m canvases or some huge murals?

I have wanted to, but never realized it. I have a huge canvas in my studio waiting for me.

When I studied art, my teacher Kaido Ole recommended to do the following exercise – to paint on a very tiny canvas, then use an enormous one, then something in between. It is good for the sense of scale, composition and proportion.

Yes, that sounds good.

I’ve experienced a totally different scale, while making murals in Kohtla-Nõmme and Kaohsiung. The surroundings and architecture play an important part. I find it hard even to draw alone.

Yes. That’s why I like the intimacy of a tiny painting. You can look at things very close. With big paintings, you use big brushes and the marks get looser and heavier.

What are you following in culture besides art exhibitions – literature, music, cinema, modern dance or something else?

Mostly films, reading and music.

What do you recommend to Epifanio readers, any recent discoveries?

A new discovery for me was a book called ”The Rings of Saturn” by a German writer W.G. Sebald. It is part facts, part narrative. The author describes a journey from a hospital in Suffolk in England throughout the Suffolk coast. He describes what he sees and makes connections with Rembrandt, silk trade and early British literature.

Christopher Orr

Born in Scotland, 1967. Lives and works in London, U.K. Studied fine art in the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, Dundee, and painting in the Royal College of Art, London. Has held solo exhibitions in IBID Projects, London (2003, 2004, 2007), Cohan Leslie and Browne, N.Y. (2003), Arndt & Partner, Berlin (2005), Sister, L.A. (2005), Hauser & Wirth, Zurich (2007). Has participated in many group exhibitions, among them “Very Abstract & Hyper Figurative”, Thomas Dane Gallery, London (2007) and “Old School”, Hauser & Wirth Colnaghi, London (2007). Has works in different art collections, etc. in Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin. Loves the music of the late Johnny Cash.

All the painting reproductions of Christopher Orr are courtesy the Artist and IBID Projects, London.