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It’s the first cold day of Berlin’s encroaching winter and two big, black poodles have arrived at the Royal Porcelain Factory. Spread across multiple floors inside one of the buildings, works by thirty different artists have taken up temporary residence as part of Galerie Droste’s "Chronicles 3" exhibition for Berlin Art Week, but the poodles are (sadly) not there to gallery hop. They’ve been summoned to accompany one of the featured artists, the Polish-Thai painter Oh de Laval, on a walk around the neighborhood — all while a photographer, stylist, makeup artist, and hairstylist hover around them like a constellation.
While holding the leash of the two poodles dressed in head-to-toe designer clothing is not generally a normal Sunday afternoon activity for the painter, the glamor of it all is unmistakably on-brand. The artist has found inspiration in both painter Francis Bacon’s hedonistic lifestyle and sociologist Émile Durkheim’s theory that deviance is necessary to a functioning, successful society. Add to these two influences de Laval’s lifelong love affair with the French New Wave, Italian cinema, and Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky, and it becomes clear why her paintings often feel like you’ve opened the wrong door and intruded into scenes of opulent surrealism.
It is the absurdity and beauty of life that sparks de Laval’s urge to create: “I want all my paintings to remind people that life is really, really unpredictable, and it's a bit tragic, and a bit of fun. People always have a hope that somewhere, some day, when they go to work, something amazing will happen to them. It’s very cinematic, but sometimes, something amazing does happen, and it makes for a good painting.”
But take one look at de Laval’s work and it’s clear she isn’t solely interested in the amazing. Alongside the sense of wonder that infuses some of her pieces sits another, more devilish aura, one that is focused on the “darker side of being human.”
This clash has made for a body of work that has caught the attention of everyone from art collectors and gallery owners to Gucci and the singer Kali Uchis. Aside from her cinematic inspirations, the visual style takes cues from cartoons she watched as a child; her paintings feel ripped from storybooks that would have been pulled from bookshelves for being too vulgar. They evoke classic Hans Christian Anderson illustrations, yet they are packed with enough decadence to make Jay Gatsby blush.
The world she has crafted ricochets freely between violence and sex and beauty with chaotic glee. Surging with warped pleasure, her canvases are a labyrinth of film noir references, penetrative fervor, and the occasional beheading. In You have two hands, one to help yourself, the second to help others, a bunny slipper-wearing, bathrobe-clad man with a raging boner glares as a young man tries to extinguish a sports car engulfed in flames via both a water hose and his own, equally-raging boner. Scroll a bit more and, in Here comes a feeling you thought you’d forgotten, a woman is railed by a devil on an ornate gold couch as an explosion goes off outside the window.
There is absolutely zero chill in the scenarios that de Laval paints. And while the works she creates ratchets up the eroticism to 11, when de Laval opens the door of her Soho House hotel room to greet me on a crisp Sunday morning, there’s not a trace of the absurdity in her work to be found in the artist. Away from the canvas and inside her hotel, de Laval is effortlessly relaxed in spite of the disarray of suitcases, styling bags, makeup kits, and five people piling into the small room. Speaking as if she’s known everyone on the team for ages, she excitedly asks whether we want to go for breakfast upstairs or have some juice from the mini fridge.
Caught in the middle of the pandemonium of life as a rising talent in the art scene, de Laval is thriving. It can feel as if she were made for this moment, but their path to success was paved by years of hard work – a path which began in her childhood bedroom. Born Olga Pothipirom in Warsaw in 1990, de Laval was drawn to painting early on thanks to her mother, a casual artist who often told her daughter to “go paint something” when de Laval grew bored.
“I'm an only child, and because of that, I used to spend lots of time in my room painting and drawing,” she recalls. When she wasn’t holed up in her room, she found solace, and inspiration, in cartoons. “I was raised on Cartoon Network and Powerpuff Girls. Do you remember the character called HIM? The devil with the red face? I love him.” It takes only a quick glance through de Laval’s body of work to see how the character of a mischievous devil with his thigh-high heeled boots, a red jacket with a pink tulle collar, and a matching red skirt with a pink tulle hemline inspired the artist.
Surrounded by a steady stream of cartoons and raised by a mother who also loved to paint, the path towards an art career seems obvious — yet de Laval’s life nearly went in a completely different direction. As she began her university studies, she initially pursued a degree in industrial design before realizing that her true passion lay elsewhere. “I was very good at the painting classes when I used to study industrial design, so I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I could just paint for myself.’ It became my addiction. I had a normal job like everyone else, but I used to paint every weekend. It didn’t matter if I partied or didn’t; I always painted religiously. That's how the progress came.” Even her time spent working at the Thai embassy with her father couldn’t blunt her artistic devotion. With her door closed, she would paint through the workday. This routine carried on for seven years until, suddenly, she decided to leave it all behind and jet to London to pursue art full-time.
The leap of faith has paid off. In the five years since moving, she has steadily found a growing audience — an ascent boosted by her decision in 2013 to start posting her art on Instagram. “I just had this feeling that every one of my paintings should be exposed. When Instagram started, I thought it was the perfect way [to show my work].” Like many other young artists from minority backgrounds, de Laval has used the social network to break free of the art world’s rampant financial and demographic elitism. “You can be very good, not have a gallery that exposes you, and still get recognition and sell paintings. I just do my own thing and am treated more like a brand, instead of being treated like a pawn in a game. You have to remember that it's a business as well. Painting is nice in your flat or in your studio, but it is a business.”
With over a hundred thousand followers, de Laval has undoubtedly found acclaim online, but her success has also carried over to the real world. Social media inevitably blunts the details of her artwork, but the scenarios she paints are well suited to Instagram. They’re eye-catching, evocative, and have somehow evaded censorship by the social network’s notoriously nudity-hating algorithms, despite the abundance of painted breasts and dicks.
Ironically, only one painting she’s produced has been censored — and it was by Spotify, not Instagram. After the singer Kali Uchis slid into de Laval’s DMs upon discovering her work last year, the painter was tasked with making Uchis’ album cover for her To Feel Alive EP. The result? Two versions of Uchis (with dark hair and blonde hair, respectively) engage in some casual cunnilingus in a luxury London apartment while a pod on London Eye burns in the background. Painted in the midst of the pandemic, it perfectly captured the vibe of spending a year inside pleasuring yourself while the world burned, but the female-centric nature of the pleasuring turned out to be too much for the streaming service. As the album dropped, a version of the cover with the two Uchis was rendered unrecognizable, overly censored to the point of becoming a hilariously blurred constellation of pixels. For de Laval, the censorship didn’t bother her. “Let the internet do it's work. From a marketing point of view, what people don't see they will ask [about].”
Beyond the Uchis-on-Uchis action she painted for the album, de Laval’s work has largely moved past more explicit depcitions of sex as her work has matured: “I'm still happy to paint sex, but I don't want to show anything. [My paintings] are much more chill. I'm more interested in how to show things by not showing them. By giving people the suggestion of sex. It's more subtle, but I don't want to be totally subtle. I still [want my work] to have this edge to it.”
The maturing of her work may mean less decapitated, naked bodies, but it comes during an important new phase for the artist. Freed from the constraints of a lockdown that left her creatively strained, the artist is basking in the beautiful chaos of a world slowly coming back to life. A world that, on this particular day, has allowed her to travel to an old porcelain manufacturing factory in the center of the Berlin. With camera bags and suitcases full of clothes strewn about, plus a half dozen people standing by to watch, de Laval takes her place in front of two of her latest works.
On her right, the painting depicts a couple in the midst of passionate, violent sex. The man bites the woman as the Eiffel Tower shines in the distance. Situated in front of floor-to-ceiling windows, they are at once both exposed and veiled from the outside world. The piece is called Forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest, a nod to two apples on a corner of the bed, one eaten and one untouched. It is a Parisian Adam and Eve, fucking in a fancy hotel. On the left, with “All my friends drive like we have extra lives”, is a scene that feels like a glimpse into the freedom of a post-pandemic future. A topless woman on a Yamaha motorbike clutches a man as her black skirt flies up in the wind. Rain is falling and they’re surrounded by foliage. She is free at last.
In this context, the works are a perfect, if accidental, contrast between a year spent indoors and the freedom of newfound escape, but that isn’t their point. The body of work that de Laval has produced over the years was never made to be tied to the real world. Her paintings are escapism incarnate, an ode to living large and dreaming of more than the mundane. And as de Laval ventures into the next phase of her career, her vision has begun to extend beyond the canvas. In the days after our meeting, she launched a writing challenge to her Instagram fans, asking them to write a few lines about her and her paintings. “Make it simple but significant,” she wrote before sealing the hand-written note with a red lipped kiss.
As hundreds of responses filled her email, one particularly poetic response from a friend in Paris made its way to her Instagram. With only a few short lines, they captured the essence of why Oh de Laval has become so captivating: “Looks like Monica Bellucci. Drinks champagne while wearing Gucci. Painting in her pasta bikini. Living the sweet life like Fellini. Dreamy kisses, forbidden fruit. Oh de Laval is such a mood.”
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