Desert islands are often the setting of various solitude-related hypotheticals (how would you keep entertained? Would you escape? What would you do to survive?). Much like conversationally ubiquitous uninhabited isles, deep caves also impose a sort of total aloneness. Artist Jeremy Olson explores these lesser-discussed spaces in his show at Unit, Grotto Domestic . The space's low ceilings and walls adorned with soft, dark fabrics effectively construct a cave that viewers move through as they contemplate Olson's tightly confined caverns. 
The artist overlays these rugged spaces with touches of civilisation: luxuriant jewel-toned carpets, soft-light lamps, IKEA-like shelves and tables. The caves are peopled with colourful anthropomorphic figures that aren't quite human, but aren't quite alien either. Olson is known for his humanoid characters in paintings, and also in mixed-media installations and sculptures. In his recent work, he's particularly interested in exploration and representation of the grotesque. 
The off-putting is certainly central in Grotto Domestic. Many of the characters are hooked to their screens or to their vaping devices; in spite of their playful appearance, they seem enshrouded in a tragic, avoidant isolation. In this way, Olson takes on the frightening nature of solitude, especially in a world on the precipice of collapse. I had the chance to chat with Olson about his approach to art and the intricacies of Grotto Domestic. 
Let's start with a little introduction! Tell us a bit about yourself and your artistic process. How do you get started on a work — do you plan it out first or improvise?
I’ve found that I need to plan the work out quite a bit before I get started painting. Currently, a lot of the preparatory work or sketching is digital. I often will build out a whole scene in 3D software (mostly Blender) so I can play around with lighting and camera angles. Sometimes I’ll use AI software to create a backdrop or environment. A degree of improvisation usually comes in later, often the characters are altered or changed completely while I’m painting.
You're a painter, but you've also worked on creating objects and installations. Do you like to keep these practices separate, or do they tend to bleed into each other? How do you think your mixed media work informs your work as a painter, if at all?
Conceptually, they used to be pretty separate tracks, but they have gradually become more unified as digital processes have become more central to both. These days I may create a character or an object on the computer thinking it will be the subject of a painting, but decide I actually want to make it a physical object instead. Or vice versa.
I notice that you use a lot of bright, saturated colour in your recent paintings. What draws you to that aesthetic? In your view, how do the vibrant colours interact with the often disquieting settings of your work?
In my work the bright colours usually denote the synthetic, the plastic, but also a degree of successfully imposed order.
Do you have a preferred colour palette? Are there any colours that you associate with specific emotions or memories?
I do think about the palette when I’m developing an image or series of images, but it’s usually based on a more general mood or feeling that I’m trying to achieve. When I look back at all the work together, I notice patterns and colour shifts over time, but I’m not conscious of these broader shifts in the moment of creation.
This exhibit centres on ideas of confinement, excess free time, dependence on technology, and mental health. It's hard not to associate all of these themes with the Covid-19 lockdown. Was that an influence for you? What other global or personal events shaped your approach to this collection of artwork?
The pandemic was a moment where already present tendencies were heightened. I’ve long been interested in social control and obviously the lockdowns were an extreme example of that, however well justified. More broadly I really sense that we’re in the midst of a transformational moment globally, major economic shifts are on the horizon along with the increasing threats of war and environmental collapse. I’m not confident in our collective ability to steer these events, but I’m trying to understand them to the degree I can. I think artists can sometimes sense changes before they’ve fully crystallised. One thing I’m paying attention to is governmental attempts at censorship and narrative control, things I sense are rapidly increasing in anticipation of turmoil to come.
The themes of your exhibit are quite heavy, but you also note that your work is imbued with dark humour and irony. How do you balance serious topics with a lighter touch? What are some of the elements of Grotto Domestic that you want viewers to take more comically?
My characters are kind of ridiculous, often slightly pathetic or loser-ish. I often feel inept in various ways and think maybe this is the true universal, a kind of general incompetence. I try to approach both my work and life in general with a sense of humour and humility. Even heavy themes deserve a bit of levity. Yes, possibly we have already irreparably destroyed the planet, but what did anyone expect?
I see that some of the paintings in the exhibit deal with watching and being watched. What do you think are the roles of the artist and the viewer in this double-structure of observing while being observed?
That kind of split-subjectivity is so interesting to me, the self-consciousness of always feeling watched. We know that virtually everything we do online is tracked, our purchases and locations, what we’re reading, etc. A lot of our conversations are likely being recorded, even though there isn’t anyone actually listening. There’s no way this doesn’t affect how we act, and even how we think. I’m not sure what the proper role of the artist is in this situation, but I think we have to try to be honest with ourselves, and not self-censor too much.
Humanoid creatures are a common aspect of many of your paintings. What draws you to these characters, and what prompts you to continue to use them?
I hope they’re relatable in a way that is more universal than particular people would be. I always come back to picture books and the kind of anthropomorphism that comes so naturally to children. There’s a kind of naive innocence to some of the characters that I wish I could inhabit. Of course, the other thing is just that it’s fun for me to create them and to explore aspects of cuteness and the monstrous and weird.
What's your favourite non-human creature from art, film, or literature?
I could never pick just one. I have a deep love for Jim Henson’s muppets and creatures for sci-fi and kid’s movies. Of course I grew up loving the Star Wars movies, and ET was pretty great. I also have always loved monster and horror movies. H.R. Giger’s Alien designs were incredible. Spirited Away by Miyazaki has some fantastic characters. I have a lasting fondness for Godzilla, and so on.
The work in this exhibit includes rugged landscapes peppered with ultramodern machines. Does the combination of these elements represent a confrontation or a coexistence of nature and technology? How has the link between the two changed in your art over time, as our society has become increasingly technologically advanced?
To me, there's a really satisfying dissonance when the two are combined. They are inherently intention, but technology can’t completely eclipse nature or it destroys its own foundation.
Are you more of a nature or city person? What do you do when you need to recharge?
I’m definitely more of a city person. I usually stay close to my little area of Brooklyn, but when I’m burned out in the studio I’ll often just spend a day in Manhattan walking around and going to galleries. This is maybe once a month, I don’t do it often enough to get sick of it. Of course, I need to truly get away and spend time in nature on occasion, but I’m generally happy in the city.
Grotto Domestic also takes on the consequences of too much free time. How do you visually represent this ambiguous luxury?
It’s not a problem I currently have at all, more of a fantasy. I have stacks of unread books, and there are so many films I haven’t had the chance to see. I love making art, but I would probably work a little more slowly if there wasn’t an economic imperative. I am interested in utopian visions of a post-work society, but I’m extremely skeptical of them working out without massive political progress. I don’t think our main problems have much to do with technological development. But in the paintings this sense of time and capacity for leisure is represented by endless expanses of carpeting, empty wading pools, etc.
You interrogate whether these grottoes are natural or human-made. In a similar vein, you represent addiction — to screens, but also to devices that resemble vape pens and bongs. To what extent are the creatures in Grotto Domestic victims of forces outside their control, and to what extent are they simply experiencing fallout of their own doing?
I would never call them victims, but obviously everyone is to some extent a product of their environment. On one hand, any developing control society will need its bread and circuses. But as an artist, I can’t complain too much, because where would we be without circuses?
To wrap up, do you have any other projects that you can share? What are some themes or visuals you're looking forward to exploring in your future work?
After several back-to-back solo shows, I’m excited to have a little breathing room. I have several ideas that I’ve been developing and want to keep working on, but I can’t reveal much more than that.