Union of realistic, abstract inspires

by David Pagel, Los Angeles Times, December 21st, 2007

“Utopias,” at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, pairs two painters whose works are not usually linked: Robert Olsen and Adam Ross. The unexpected juxtaposition of Olsen's realistic pictures of the urban landscape at night and Ross' abstract paintings of fractured space is flat-out inspired: It makes the rock-solid compositions by the L.A. painters even more captivating than they are on their own.

The main gallery features six oils by Olsen. In the three largest, bus shelters emerge from pure inky blackness. Each Spartan structure is illuminated by the kind of wall-size light box on which advertisements are usually displayed. Olsen seeks out off-duty shelters — no people appear in any of his pictures, and no company or corporation is renting the advertising space when he takes the snapshots on which his paintings are based. The blank rectangles of bright light have the heavenly presence of infinite possibility.

In his three other paintings, the spherical sign for “76” gasoline similarly emerges from the blackness of starless night skies. One orb is orange, one red and the other unilluminated. The narrative suggested — of corporate redesign and lights-out failure — is less compelling than the stark anonymity of the bus stop paintings.

Olsen transforms bare-bones architecture into a fascinating essay on the inhospitality of Modernist architecture and the chilly beauty of geometric perfection. These paintings turn overlooked bits of cities into mirages, shimmering illusions that make one aspect of public transport seem a portal into the future.

Although Ross' palette is brighter and more electrifying than Olsen's, Ross' nine paintings, hung in trios in three small side galleries, are darker, meatier and more troubling. Each looks back on the history of abstraction — particularly its wildly optimistic promise to deliver viewers to a new and improved world — and sees ruin, failure and folly.

Many of Ross' paintings have the presence of gorgeous train wrecks, their sumptuously poisonous colors, explosively fractured compositions and piled-up painterly techniques suggesting breakdown, derailment, devastation. The aftermath of the crash may be beautiful — with expansive blue skies and fluffy clouds visible between broken columns and twisted conduits — but it also looks toxic, aglow with a gaseous palette of mutant tertiary colors. If Fernand Léger and Wyndham Lewis were to paint the apocalypse, this is what it might look like.

Paired, Ross' and Olsen's works draw visitors into a wide-ranging conversation about where people — and painting — fit in the digital age.