“I have this thing with checking my DMs before I go to sleep,” says Warsaw-born painter Oh de Laval from her studio in Manchester, where she’s lived for the past two years. “I interact with people from all over the world. When I go to sleep, it’s early in America, so I check it at midnight.”
It’s no surprise that a rigorous DM routine would be such an important part of de Laval’s schedule: her Instagram feed is an addictive, hypnotic flow of pastel colors and friendly characters who could have jumped off the pages of Hans Christian Anderson tales, intermingling in a playground of ghoulish sex — most of the men have demonic attributes — and anarchic joy. And it’s earned her a devoted fan-base: close to 70k followers.
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While Britain was in its early days of lockdown, de Laval found one of those late-night DMs from experimental pop musician Kali Uchis, who was eager to collaborate on an upcoming EP. “She knew straight away what she wanted to do. And I think that was the fastest painting I ever did,” says de Laval. “I only had this one, very big canvas in my studio, but this was during lockdown, so I couldn’t just go out and buy a new one. So I had to complete it on this huge canvas, and I did it in half a day – and it usually takes me around a week for me to complete any of my paintings. I was really driven when I was making it.”
What de Laval created for Uchis’s To Feel Alive was a story in motion, suspended in its most jaw-dropping beat: In a luxury apartment, one incarnation of Uchis (with dark hair) pleasures another incarnation (this one blonde, the Uchis of To Feel Alive’s release) on a pink bed, surrounded by champagne, while one pod on the London Eye Ferris wheel burns in the background. It’s very not safe for work, but can be found here.
While the image itself seems to fit with de Laval’s brand of radical, carnal fun, both she and Uchis knew that the goal was not simply to titillate. “People might say, ‘Oh, it’s one woman comforting another woman’, but it’s so much deeper than that!” Uchis’s vision had more to do with the idea of a kind of mental satisfaction — a past self inspiring and informing the present self — even as the world is descending into destruction just outside your window.
“[Uchis] loved it,” says de Laval of the painting’s crown jewel, that smoldering tourist pod. “It was important to show the city burning while she was just enjoying herself.” Not everyone agreed with the painting’s message, however: On Spotify, Uchis and de Laval quickly learned that the image had been completely censored into an unintelligible blur, as seen below. They were surprised at the level of censorship: bodies turned into blobs.
Like her more recent work, the painting leans into the joyful and the cartoonish, built on small, skilled painterly flourishes, and avoids any implicit politicization of her monstrous men or of one-note notions of sexual empowerment (if a woman painting sex can inherently avoid politicization). But this style, the one that’s earned her a global following, followed a distinct phase. The work she produced as a young student in Paris hinged on images of gore and violence with a darker palette of visceral tones. “It was just that period in my early twenties. I wanted to do something different and I was really inspired Francis Bacon, who used that subject a lot.”
She describes Paris as the city she feels most connected to, the place that fundamentally formed her. “But now because my life looks different. I’ve grown, up, I do different things; I don’t party as much – this year not at all!” she explains. “Life changes and my paintings change, too. And I’m happy about that.” Her true subject might be the messiness of life itself: de Laval’s new limited-edition pop-up book from Unit London is titled The Greater the Love, the Greater the Chaos.