Oslo Davis doesn’t strike you as a particularly flappable character. He isn’t one for dour self-analysis or philosophising. On his computer screen is a drawing of a jolly-looking elf. The caption reads “Where I get my jokes: ‘Gary’”.
Hanging out in the kitchen of his humble Footscray weatherboard – where he lives with wife Mika and their daughters, 4-year-old Minami and 14-month Yuna – Davis is all about toothy grins and giggles. He swaps jokes with Mika; he flips through old sketchbooks, cracking up at random; he dotes over Yuna, who, it seems, has developed a near-obsessive penchant for pushing the buttons on the stereo.
“A joke could come at anytime,” he says, pausing, smiling. “My job is about being aware of that and being ready for it.
“You could be lying in bed, or on your bike, or in a meeting, but it’s then that you might see that funny shirt or something.”
It’s a quality that’s written all over the 37-year-old cartoonist and illustrator’s work, which has seen him illustrate for publications ranging from The Age, New York Times and Business Week, to Meanjin, Going Down Swinging, Sleepers Almanac and Is Not Magazine, and will feature in his debut solo exhibition This Annoying Life (opening at Lamington Drive at 6pm this Thursday). No matter the absurdity of the ink and watercolour scenes he creates, they are still, almost by prerequisite, anchored in the machinations of the everyday.
“I think the joke has to start in the basis of reality and then it just has to take a step past that,” says Davis, a member of Melbourne illustration clique The Jacky Winter Group. “Having a husband and wife in an argument, where the end result isn’t something bad,” he giggles, “to me is really funny, because we can all relate to it and it’s just so real.
“So it has to start with something that we can all connect to and then just take a step further into the unknown; and hopefully it’s funny.”
Flicking through Davis’s work, you’ll find his ‘Pretty Tough Going’ Guide to Summer Reading, including such uplifting titles as 18th Century English Winters, The German Tax System, Lonely Planet: Colac and ABC’s Landline: The Complete Transcripts. Elsewhere, there’s the IKEA Marriage Breaker catalogue, replete with a compact storage unit dubbed The Minor Squabble, a chest of drawers called The Ensuing Vicious Legal Battle and the piece de résistance, The Criminal Intent.
There’s also his collection of Harry Potters in the Works, which feature an increasingly despondent boy-wizard in titles such as Harry Potter and the Target Voucher (“This place is SHIT!” he growls to himself), Harry Potter and the Lee Kernaghan DVD, Harry Potter Still on Dial-Up and the classic-in-the-making, Harry Potter in the Car while Dad gets some Two-Stroke for the Mower.
“Looking at the work and all the Overheard pieces I’ve done for The Age and all the jokes and cartoons, everything sort of has this line of angst running through it,” offers Davis. “And I love that. I don’t want my work to be really, painfully dark. I think jokes like that are too easy to do and, quite often, not all that funny.
“I kind of like that idea of Curb Your Enthusiasm, you know, like those notions of ‘get over it’ or ‘calm down’ or ‘get off my back’ or those sorts of feelings,” he laughs. “That’s where the idea of This Annoying Life kind of comes from.”
Interestingly, Davis didn’t come to drawing until his early 20s. Having grown up on the northwest coast of Tasmania, he studied and worked as a high school English teacher before the urge to draw took hold. “I actually had a really good mate who taught himself to draw and I found that inspiring,” he recounts. “I was really impressed by Leunig and Spooner in The Age and my friend said ‘Just do it!’ and I haven’t stopped.”
Drawing even brought romance: “When Mika and I met, we would sit in cafes and make each other laugh by drawing the people around us.”
But while Davis is finally entering the gallery, he doesn’t see his practice in terms of art. “I’m not so into being an artist or ‘art for art’s sake’ kind of person,” he admits.
“I want to help people appreciate what cartoons and drawings can do, because I think in Australia we don’t really have exposure to the versatility of the cartoon.”
For him, it’s all about the joke. “I almost want people to think of it as not as a cartoon, but just a way of communicating a gag,” he offers. “It’s almost as if the cartoon itself or the drawing itself doesn’t need to be there; it’s just a vehicle.
“I just love it when an editor is like ‘We need a joke!’ and you’ve got an hour in a hot room to make it happen.”
Oslo Davis’s This Annoying Life runs opens 6pm-9pm this Thursday November 19 at Lamington Drive and runs until December 23.