Painting against an established grain

by Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times, July 22nd, 2005

At Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, twelve new paintings by Robert Olsen make up a riveting show

When a young artist hits his stride, it's always bracing to watch as he pushes against the boundaries established in his earlier work. That's what Robert Olsen seems to be doing in his latest exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Twelve new paintings make up a marvelous show.

The most remarkable incorporate a slight shift in subject matter. Olsen has painted gas pumps, back alley Dumpsters, broken curbs, bus shelters, ATMs — the omnipresent objects in the urban landscape of an automobile-dependent society. But often he makes them singular by painting them at night. Shrouded in darkness and selectively illuminated by electric lamplight, they become the focus of odd perceptual scrutiny. In a 2002 interview with The Times, Olsen mentioned a developing interest in store-window mannequins as subjects, and five examples are in this show. The best are riveting.

All of the mannequins are headless. The vantage is up close, as if you're standing with your nose at the window glass, and the figures are cropped at the bust or just below the waist. Female, they are dressed in inky black formal attire. The darkness of night seems closely wrapped around their bodies.

One torso wears a fitted jacket with a plunging neckline trimmed with fur, its ostensible softness merging with prickly suggestions of tiny teeth. The artificial illumination casts the severed neck and bodice in a deathly pallor, worthy of the morgue. Two versions of this painting, one horizontal and the other vertical, feel entirely different: The figure in the horizontal composition seems remote and alien, while cropping in the otherwise identical one makes it seem aggressive.

Olsen has painted the side edges of the first panel black, those of the second white. Hanging on a white wall, the first feels dense, dark and weighty, but the second quietly floats the painting's surface out from the wall. Recognizing the materiality of paintings as objects, Olsen uses such devices to subtly reinforce pictorial illusions.

Details matter. In each of these two paintings, where blacks and whites predominate, it takes a few moments to notice a thin line of red paint drawn along the edge of the jacket cuff, near the panel's bottom edge. It's as if the blood has drained from the mannequin — or perhaps from the picture. The mannequin paintings radiate quiet but inescapable sophistication while exuding a baleful sense of deathly extravagance. They seem just right as social indicators of American life today.

The remaining works are more familiar in Olsen's lexicon. One, perhaps the most conventionally beautiful, shows a busted-up concrete traffic island, with the reflector-paint on a pair of toppled-over sawhorses glowing in the night. Collapse is always melancholic, but rarely does it look so lovely.

The others show glass-and-steel bus shelters, most with empty advertising panels. Floating rectilinear planes of white hover above amorphous reflections on the ground, each is an inventory of light: clarity, transparency, translucence and opacity. These shelters form a refuge from the darkness, which mostly serves to make their glowing puddles of illumination exquisitely spooky.

Most of the bus shelter paintings, like all of the mannequin images, are very small (less than a foot on a side). Two, however, are the largest works by Olsen that I've seen, approaching 3 and 4 feet in dimensions. Their subjects become downright monumental. He pulls it off in a subtly adventurous show.