As his new exhibition opens at the Tracey Emin Foundation in Margate, Oliver Hemsley talks about being mentored by the legendary YBA and why he rejects the label of “disabled artist”
“I’m not interested in exploiting a traumatic event, or even talking about it. What I’m interested in is making art about a life which has been made different by that event.” Suffolk-based artist Oliver Hemsley’s debut exhibition Caregivers is an unapologetic, autobiographical examination of an existence dependent on care, and the care we give – or fail to give – ourselves and others. Curated by Tracey Emin and Elissa Cray, Hemsley’s offering of confronting paintings contrasts the tenderness of companionship and sexuality with, at times, vicious depictions of resentment and abjection.
Having been introduced to Emin by mutual connections some years ago, Hemsley eventually found himself under the mentorship of the prolific artist, whose own autobiographical works have become synonymous with the YBA movement of the 1990s. “Oliver scares and excites me. He has a real passion,” says Emin. “Working with him on this show has been really brilliant. I have loved every part of the journey.”
The paintings that feature in Caregivers are born of a deep and near-constant state of introspection. Having relocated from London to a sleepy corner of Suffolk where the local population barely exceeds 200, he lives surrounded by his work, diving into his practice as often as possible. He explains, “I think a really brilliant position to be in is when I wake up and the first thing I want to do is get straight back to the paintings. It’s torture if you’re not doing that, and if you’re finding yourself not producing the work you want to make.” He cites the sometimes sharp but always constructive guidance of Emin as being central to his development. “She’s a really switched on, really clever, softly spoken, kind, but formidable woman who doesn’t take shit and she’s been a mentor to me, which was an incredible experience. The show’s called Caregivers, and she’s given me a lot of care.”
Reflecting on his life and career so far, Hemsley asserts that “once you realise you’re an artist, there’s no going back”, but acknowledges that without an innate ability to be vulnerable there’s no good art. “There’s one painting in the show that reads ‘you’re not trying to prove you can draw’, which is something I had written on the studio wall because for a long time I still had this need to make an image that was either too literal or too correct or graphic, and that negated the emotional quality a little bit for me.” Speaking on his obsession with Barbara Hepworth’s series The Hospital Drawings, Hemsley declares, “I want art to be beautiful, even if it’s horrifying, even if it’s frightening. The way I connect with The Hospital Drawings when I look at them is on another level. If art doesn’t come across to me as being very human and very direct in that way, then I find perhaps I’m less connected to it.”
By his own admission, Hemsley lives almost exclusively to make art. “It is the one thing I can do, and because I have a spinal cord injury, there are a lot of things I can’t do. So yeah, of course, it consumes everything.” Where he confesses to struggling to find a comfortable position for himself is within pigeon-holes people are so often quick to put him in. “The big paintings in the show have piss, shit, cum, sex, blood, whatever. It’s about living, and it’s about life – a life I didn’t want to live. I get really pissed off and I refuse to be called a disabled artist, because I hate being disabled. Call me a queer artist any day, because I love being gay.”
Hemsley’s paintings demand attention, addressing the viewer from a reality that most cannot fathom, but the artist himself has chosen carefully what to share, and what to keep private. “Quite a lot of the paintings do have text on but you don’t see it because they’ve been painted over, because a lot of it is far too vulnerable. I wrote down once that I’m not frightened of showing people paintings, but the paintings I would be frightened of showing are the ones that I’ve destroyed or that I’ve covered up because they’re way too exposing.”
While he chose rural life over London, Hemsley’s first solo show might also be a sign of his readiness to reintroduce himself to the vigour of city living. He speaks of a desire to return to London for himself, having dedicated recent years to his work. “Isolation has been really great for the work. Not necessarily great for me, but great for the work,” he says. Having finally shared his hyperpersonal body of work with a wider audience, a renewed confidence and sense of his own potential might be the soil his artistic self needs to grow. “I’ve sobbed a lot. [At the opening] I kept thinking ‘wow, this is incredible – this indescribable feeling of being capable,’” he says. “It’s not a pity fuck. It’s not a salacious story. It’s absolutely fucking none of that. It’s just like, wow, this is what being an artist is.”
Caregivers by Oliver Hemsley is on show at the Tracey Emin Foundation in Margate until 15 October 2023.