Olivia Sterling: 'Really Rough Scrubbing Brush' review

Art Free
4 out of 5 stars
Olivia Sterling
Olivia Sterling

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

We all want a perfect tan. Well, not all of us. Some of us actually long for peaches and cream paleness, or bright rosy cheeks. And each of those desires comes with a heavy implication: why would a white person want to be browner, why would a black person want to be whiter? Well, young painter Olivia Sterling is hellbent on poking and prodding that fleshy question in the gut.

The new paintings in this show are all about skin and bodies, about tans and bronzer and bleach and sunscreen. Faceless women lounge by the pool. White bodies turn lobster pink in the sun, brown ones are slathered with cream. That tan, is it… chocolate? That sunscreen, is it… vanilla ice cream? There’s food everywhere, lumps and bumps, curves and skin. 

You know what Sterling’s getting at. Society is obsessed with beautiful bodies and perfect skin, but those obsessions have deeply unsettling racial implications, Sterling is just tearing at those concepts. 

So the ideas are good, but what makes Sterling’s paintings really shine is the execution. These are incredibly bright, vibrant paintings, properly glowing with yellows and blues and pinks. The figures are all cartoony and exaggerated, they look like Honoré Daumier painting Tom & Jerry’s racist Mammy Two Shoes character. Each work is filled with cake and ice cream, and hands slapping and grabbing. It’s not just clever, it’s really great painting.

Sterling is only 24 years old, and as a result, these paintings feel like countless Gen Z neuroses and fears and anxieties condensed down into paint: race, body image, patriarchy and humour, all brilliantly smooshed together.


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