Olivia Sterling: Rage Comedy

Must read

Leading Image of Magazine Article


Rage Comedy

Interview by Shir Cohen  // Portrait by Brynley Odu Davies

Olivia Sterling’s protagonists flail and prey, grind sausages, and mangle cakes, oozing pure angst, twisted into buoyant humor with juicy strokes. On the heels of a duo show at Huxley-Parlour Gallery with her friend Shir Cohen, aptly titled Rage Comics, Sterling sat down in Cohen’s studio for a conversation that bounces between wetness, furries, and systemic racism. And you, dear reader, are the leering fly on the wall, observing a biting, intersectional dialogue enjoyed over tea and cake. Kristin Farr

Shir Cohen: This is our cold open. Who’s the villain?

Olivia Sterling: In my past paintings, basically white stuff is the villain of the painting. Cream, milk; it’s meant to be a metaphor for how overarching whiteness is, and how it will bleed into everything. It bleeds into how I see myself, what I should be doing, how I feel about myself… the blonde woman in my painting isn’t normal, but she’s left alone, whereas all of your figures are either animals or being purposely hurt. Why do you think that is? 

Olivia Sterling: Rage Comedy

I don’t know if you’re comfortable talking about this, but we’re both racially mixed with a white Mom. 

We are, yeah. I knew this would come up. I was looking at my paintings like, is that what it is? It’s mommy issues, like racial mommy issues. 

And expanding on that, is the blonde woman not like Britannia?

Isn’t she? I think so.

You were born here in the UK, and I moved here from Jerusalem. I immediately felt a relief when I got here, but also a weird assimilationist pressure to do the right thing, stay on the right side of the escalator, and never step out of line. 

I have experienced that to my core, and I suppose like—oh God, I’m so conformist—I don’t really see that as being a bad thing. I like how English people are very neat, but there’s something to think about there. 

We were conflating villain and mommy issues together, that’s obviously not to say that we consider our blonde Mums to be the villains. I just think, growing up, as I did, a Black woman in a very white, countryside town—and when you have a white mother, she expects the same level of femininity to be blessed to you. Whereas, of course, as a Black person, or genderqueer, fluid, or even a not overtly white woman, you’re just not offered the same reactions. And it’s not even that lack of the same reaction that is the problem. You might think you should be a certain way when clearly you’re not. I think Rage Comics, even though it’s focusing on the sort of incel, far-right mentality of thinking, it’s us kind of sadly saying we understand those ways of thinking. Is that like your hugging painting?

Olivia Sterling: Rage Comedy

Yes, it’s the love and rejection, and feeling intimidated by something, but also wanting to be it. 

That’s a big, almost-incel thought pattern that I have to push against all the time. I talked about this with my friends, about how because of whiteness and white supremacy, people may not want us. But this is shared with incels. And that’s what incels think, like, no one fancies me, it’s over. I’m never going to do anything. 

And we are a bit like that too, sometimes. I have thought to myself that it’s over many times. 

Me too. Does something pull you out of that?

Just having good friends helps, and honestly moving to a different country from my parents helped a lot. 

And I suppose it’s the type of friends you have. I would never have any friends that used the word fat in a negative way. If anything, we all talk about being fat too much, and we’re celebrating it too much [laughs]. 

What also pulls me out of thinking that way… how do I say this without sounding a bit wild? At least our marginalization, and thinking that it could be “over”—that’s based on discrimination. I don’t want to say that at least our complaints are valid, whereas incel complaints are very one-dimensional and self-positioning, but a white CIS man being sad about how’s not banging a million chicks… that’s not a systemic issue. 

Olivia Sterling: Rage Comedy

Although a lot of incels do touch on some real things, like autism, physical disabilities, class issues… There’s a reason why fascism is called communism for fools because they understand some of the fundamental problems of society, and then project them onto someone who has absolutely nothing to do with it. 

Like a scapegoat, to be full circle, just like our blonde mothers. We’re all just wanting to find a villain to point a finger at and say this is the problem. So I guess we’re all the same in that way, but hopefully, the way that we’ve produced the show is a bit healthier than just letting it gnaw at our souls. 

For example, the Wound Spray painting, the biggest one I did for the show, is about having a painting full of giantesses, or big, beefy butcher people fiddling around with these sausages, and being the dominant force in the painting, but it not being overtly about attractiveness. It’s about the silliness of playing with a bunch of sausages because incels or far-right men are obsessive about penis size. This painting is focusing on a famous Reddit post where a guy is bemoaning that his wrist size is smaller than other men’s penises, and he’s getting really upset. And the sausages in this painting are really big and almost snake-like. It’s just fun to pull out. 

And that painting has camaraderie with the white woman. So we are saying it’s not all white women… 

Yes, however, she does have a boo-boo, her finger is cut, so clearly she was playing a bit too hard with the sausages. Perhaps it’s like that vibe of when you’re a white person, you want to add your own marginalization in order to shield yourself from the beratement or scolding that happens about white people—even though that scolding is insignificant in terms of how you live your life and how systematic issues affect you. 

Our show, on the surface, looked really angry and painful, but I would say it’s not anger, it’s mirth and transformation. Transforming this anger into jokes. 

Olivia Sterling: Rage Comedy

The most violent painting in the show is the first one you made, which is the white guy being ground up into sausage. I guess that’s a transformation. 

Just a classic comedy transformation. I’m a witch turning a man into a frog, but I’m actually a butcher turning men into sausages. Painting can allow this fantasy to be realized but not be so ugly or painful. Many people didn’t even notice it’s a person being ground up, even though there’s clearly a hand in the grinder. Some guy said he was looking at the joint bone, so it didn’t even register. 

It was an awful joke about these far-right men because my side of the show was thinking about the right-wing UKIP people in my town, and guessing what they’d think of me. And how I probably was mixed up in xenophobic tendencies, even though I was a teenager and didn’t actually know all of this political discourse was happening. It’s the idea of me getting all these UKIP men and grinding them into sausages, and they’re Lincolnshire sausages, a beloved national dish. And that is, without a doubt, funny for these hateful men to be turned into something they love, but it makes them powerless. 

It was also so gratifying making the Manslaughter cake painting, to see a man as a cake, when men aren’t typically seen as consumable in the same way women and femmes are. So it feels more sinister to have a man be mistaken as the cake. This painting was born as a voodoo, the title, The Women Around the Table, suggests that we should be wondering what these women are doing with this cake—that this is a gossip circle and that the cake is men, or masculinity, the patriarchy, and that is what the women are feasting on, as a group activity. This goes back to how you defeat thinking about yourself in this catastrophic incel way by letting your community unpick your doubts with you. 

On top of that, we haven’t even talked about the comparisons between meat and marginalized people. I know Francis Bacon talked about the human being simplified into a carcass. I’m transforming hateful ideas into a silly joke and focusing on whiteness and white supremacy, while I think your anger spans a lot of different topics, mostly about you confronting parts of yourself. Is that the crux of the show?

Olivia Sterling: Rage Comedy

Most of what I make is self-portraiture. When you were talking about what pulls you out of your misery, I was going to say that my thing is thinking about the Holocaust and being like well, I’m not there. 

It’s the same with me thinking about if I was a slave. I would be a house slave, I wouldn’t be painting silly pictures. It’s gratitude. You have to be grateful for what you have. By the way, I finished Maus on holiday. 

Who would you fuck?

The main guy, obviously, when he was younger. He was so hot. 

Could you explain the context?

You and I are quite avid YouTube essay watchers. We talked about ContraPoints in the beginning, and from there we went even more niche. There’s a critique of Harry Potter that I love, a video essay that’s seven hours long. Another one is titled, “On the Ethics of Boinking Animal People,” which is obviously very relevant to our practices, as we dive into how marginalized people are seen as animals, sort of allowing for their dehumanization. The video talks about the ethics of being a Furry. I don’t necessarily identify as a Furry. Do you?

No, but I respect them. There’s mutual respect among queer people who are not furries, and furries, who usually seem to be queer anyway. 

When I was a child, I used to draw dogs kissing all the time, so maybe I am a Furry. 

The Furry video is by Patricia Taxxon, who is a Trans autistic person. 

Trans autistic Furry. They explain different media where Furryism is prevalent, like a wolf film that is so horny to its core, but horny in a way that makes you want to have sex with the animals. We’re thinking about general whiteness, alongside Patricia thinking we’re dropping into a new Satanic panic time. But, even in a general way, Satanic orgies, queer orgies… a lot of this stuff sounds like fun. Wasn’t it Philip Guston who said it’s more interesting for painters to paint hell than it is to paint heaven? These are just the things that are enticing to us, and in terms of Furryism as well, I understand it because it’s the rejection of all these rigid things that aren’t actually helpful or enjoyable. 

My favorite painter is probably Elsa Rouy, who I get to work with. She talks about wetness and shame, and I feel like because I identify as female, a big part of being a female is the wet experience, and obviously wetness can be translated into painting, so that’s a lovely bow that can be tied up. 

I’m actually curious about how you think about nudity in paintings. 

My paintings are rather modest, which might change in the future. I’ve painted a naked man, but never a woman. In the same way, I’m reluctant to paint overt Black pain, I’m only interested in painting about the way whiteness works. I paint my own opinion of what it feels like to be Black, but it’s never from a Black perspective. It’s always a white body, the same with nudity. Maybe I haven’t painted nudity because the actual formal elements of the paintings are Looney Toons-esque, like cell animation, so it may push into something else if I revealed a nipple or something, or it would feel raunchier. 

I have two paintings of a white woman bending over a trolley, revealing her boobies, you’re looking down into her cleavage. One of them is a painting of Nigella going into the fridge, like a wild animal ripping up cake, and she’s splashing it over her boobs—it feels very POV. If she was naked, that’s too easy in terms of talking about femininity. I guess I have to be careful about making trauma porn, or any porn. If there are clothes on the person, you would have to work harder to get the fantasy. 

Spiraling back to the white mommy issues, Nigella is very important for me in thinking about white femininity, and how she has a curvier body but she’s seen as a sex symbol, whereas that can’t really be flipped. There’s no Black Nigella. Essentially, she’s an icon. Not because she’s naked, but because she’s tantalizing. And maybe that’s what I want my paintings to be. 

Olivia Sterling: Rage Comedy

I’m interested in what you said about it not forming into porn, and how we toe that line between making something that’s too nice and something that’s like torture porn.

There is so much material you can look at—videos of Black people dying, or reading about the Holocaust, and you can make a very obvious depiction of that sort of pain, but I don’t think that’s adding anything. It’s not adding a layer of criticism or understanding, whereas we are trying to talk about these things, but put a spin on it, so it’s more easily understandable. 

That’s why we’re using orgies in this show, that’s why it’s Rage Comics. And that’s why I use food all the time. I’m trying to equate the human body to something consumable. I also love doing cake paintings. I feel bad about it because cake was a trendy thing like the Is it Cake? television show, so now it’s a bit gauche, but I still return to it so much. There’s that Reddit post where a guy is talking about his girlfriend making him a chocolate cake. 

And he’s upset about it. 

He asked his girlfriend for a chocolate cake for his birthday, something like a Devil’s Food cake, nothing fancy. And she made that cake but put vanilla icing inside, and he was horrified and had a go at her in front of her children, and the girlfriend understandably said she wouldn’t make him birthday cakes anymore. So he was on Reddit asking whether he was an asshole and loads of people surprisingly said no, she should’ve made you the cake that you wanted. 

Anyway, that’s just proving cake will always be relevant in our society because it’s personalized. We all want cake! The latest rendition of a cake painting that I’ve made was for Basel. It’s this white woman standing over a cake that basically looks exactly like her but the cake is in a bikini. I painted it during a big news surge about Trans issues, and a BBC presenter said Trans people are tricking people into thinking they’re women. Isn’t that just a red herring? I don’t think I should be the one explaining this, but no one is tricking anyone. So it’s funny thinking that a man could accidentally have sex with this cake, or have sex with a woman, in terms of surface. They’re the same thing. If anything, the cake is more like what a “woman” is supposed to be, because number one, it’s in a bikini, it’s trying to be sexy, the cake can’t talk, it’s submissive. 

It’s lying down. 

It’s very easy to dominate. Again, like these far-right tendencies of ways of thinking, but because the woman is touching this cake to see if it’s real, I think it’s a wonderful mirroring moment, like using food as a way to describe being consumed as a person. And then formally, I like using paint in a way that it is meant to look like something. So the milk will often look as if I’ve put milk on the painting. Or there’s a chalkboard that looks chalky.

And the blood in one of the paintings looks splattery.

It’s very bubbly like blood, and that’s leaning towards Pop and Pop Art, I guess. Using sausages is very Pop. Pop with a political edge!  

Olivia Sterling: Rage Comedy

It was a real sausage summer in art.

It was a sausage summer! We saw a lot of sausages in shows. 

What’s next?

I’m in a group show around Frieze (Londong, 2023). It’s actually a hilariously gross painting. I’ll show you quickly…

God, it’s awful. I love it but it’s disgusting. 

I’ve been in a painting funk, but then I painted this and felt so excited. 

It’s horrific. Go to the show if you want to see something truly amazing and disgusting at the same time.

Wow, tease! It’s a painting of profiteroles, so I’m very much on my food grind. Anyway, what are you doing for your birthday?

My plan is to invite a few friends over…

Including me. 

Including you. 

Nice. 

And have 14 hours of Opera playing in the background. 

Oh God, yeah. 

Thanks to Guts Gallery, UK.

More articles

Latest article