by Brian Sholis, artforum.com, January 24th, 2005
“Elements, Particular,” Los Angeles-based painter Robert Olsen's D.C. debut, is an engrossing example of how self-imposed limitations can open onto a wide horizon of artistic possibility. These eleven works are all night scenes, rendered in flatly applied oil on small wooden panels; they vary slightly in size but have a consistent ninety-two-inch surface area, perhaps an echo of Robert Mangold's ninety-two-inch perimeter drawings from the early 1970s. Ten paintings depict traffic signals at varying distances, from the precise details of Untitled (3 Way Light Housing) (all works 2004), which arcs in gracefully from the top left edge of the frame, to the blurry abstraction of Untitled (Red Light), which is no more than four free-floating spots of red on a light-sucking black ground. But a quick glance out the gallery window belies the “representational” nature of even the most punctilious of these works: No urban sky is ever that black; no intersection is ever that isolated. Four drawings, similar to ones shown last autumn in Los Angeles, offer another way in. In one, a penciled-in note dutifully records the wavelengths and intensities of red, yellow, and green LEDs; in another, Olsen systematically mixes colors to match his observations. Seen this way, his practice becomes an urban corollary to fellow Californian Russell Crotty's stargazing. Olsen is an accomplished anatomist of artificial light.