Oliver Bliss is a Worcester-based embroidery artist whose recent “SoftLad” series of large-scale machine stitched tapestries explores the difference between social media images and the reality of modern manhood.
“I enjoy subverting binary narratives to explore gender, sexuality and identity in a queer context. I wanted this series of portraits to reflect something different about masculinity within each one. Each of the portraits have been based on profiles on Instagram as a means of capturing a selection of men who have face and or body tattoos. I’m interested in creating a series which reflect a rage of men from this smaller subculture.
“At the start of the project, I was exploring presentations of men through visual imagery. The male figure has been a historic source of inspiration and I wanted to look at representations of the male figure in a contemporary context. I like that social platforms like Instagram are a democratic method of sharing information like a self-portrait, or images of our bodies which can have the potential to reach audiences globally.
“To narrow the scope of my interest; I focused on men with tattoos who promote themselves through Instagram. Through exploring hashtags such as #facialtattoos, #bodytattoos. I found that there is a community of people who post pictures on these hashtags and certain accounts attract larger numbers of followers.
“I started exploring how tattoos can act as a tool to help support gender expression and performance. I explored how the tattoos themselves hold meaning and heritage and the tattoos are used to create visual statements and can attract communities to come together virtually.
“The images link historic symbolism and iconography to past representations within textiles-based practice. These tapestries aim to provide a contemporary method of depicting images of men using traditional methods.
“Consider historic depictions of religious figures or royalty and warriors; our society has now reduced hero worship and celebrity into an instant, swipe-able, screen-based cultural experience. These ideas tap into concepts of self-worth, self-expression, identity, and ego. I hope the work draws attention to some of these collective themes.”
Oliver’s work is big, bold and brave. The objectification of men is one of those topics that doesn’t get a lot of focus in the world of stitch, and yet these pieces present us with a curation of tattooed men whose underlying narratives are masked by the similarities in initial appearance.
Oliver has taken inspiration from tattooed men on Instagram who have diverse stories to tell – Pilgrim’s story is that of a trans man, while Artist-Activist is based on someone who highlights injustice through his own work. Oliver goes into these characters in great detail on his blog and it’s fascinating to learn about them and the symbolism that comes from the creative conversation Oliver has in his process. The outer layer of narrative that comes from the individuals is amplified through Oliver’s elaboration and the overall compositions are large scale, visually descriptive stories of what it is to be a modern man.
Oliver’s tapestry technique is inspired by artists like Alice Kettle and he combines stitch, paint and textiles to create large scale pieces with an urban attitude that fit perfectly in today’s scene. As with people’s concept of needlework, these pieces challenge the preconception of the tattooed man, blurring the binary boundaries to reveal multiple facets. Oliver uses needle and thread in the same way, and time spent looking at his work in detail reveals a multitude of techniques and subtle points of interest.
You can connect with Oliver Bliss on Instagram but for the deep dive into his creativity, his blog is a must read. Softlads is a magnificent collection of work and it will be fascinating to see what he produces next.