Olivia Mole

Making mischief and mascots for the Hammer Museum’s “Lifes”

Olivia Mole, untitled digital Illustration, 2021.

At “Lifes,” a sundry and symphonic group show at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, a string of performances, readings, songs, and a “tuning meditation”—by the great Pauline Oliveros—ebb and flow throughout two galleries as part of an hourly cycle, shifting the vibe as if for the sake of it. The quicksilver approach of the exhibition, which numbers more than fifty participants and runs through May 8, puckishly defies the expectations of a museum to fossilize and dignify its objects on view, to bestow a certain, sacred seriousness. Nothing could be less grave, and more puzzling to pin down, than the LA-based artist Olivia Mole’s contribution to “Lifes”; her small troupe of hand-drawn characters only inhabit the show’s press materials and publication, making mischief on book pages and lamp-post banners alike. Here, Mole discusses the scope of the project and the peculiar power of the profane.

ABOUT A YEAR AGO, Hammer Museum curator Aram Moshayedi approached me about contributing to “Lifes.” It had only recently become “Lifes.” He said he had been contemplating calling it “Salade Russes”—Russian salad, like Ballets Russes. And now he was calling it “Lifes.” “Lice?” I said. Anyway, he’d been thinking about Serge Diaghilev and the Russian Ballet, and how interdisciplinary it had been: dancers, musicians, painters, sculptors assembling in concert to produce a total work of art. He envisioned “Lifes” as this roiling, rhizomatic, shapeshifting, processual thing, orbiting around four commissioned texts and expanding outward from there.

When I first spoke with Aram, I hadn’t realized it was essentially a pitch meeting. I thought it was simply a “conversation,” which is a rather foggy art-world term. He asked me how I might respond to Rindon Johnson’s text—and I started going on about carpeted floors and SpongeBob. I called up my partner afterward and was like, “Why do I always bring up SpongeBob?” There’s a scene in Rin’s text that uses an underwater perspective. And SpongeBob lives in an aquatic realm that is very much outside of the world, but still in relation to it. There are these glorious moments in the show when that barrier starts to show cracks.

I didn’t hear back from anyone at the Hammer for months, so I figured, okay, that’s it. But then Aram wrote to me out of the blue and mentioned that he had a different idea. While the Fulton Leroy Washington painting included in “Made in LA: A Version” last year had become the literal and synecdochical face of the entire exhibition, he asked me to contribute something specifically for these promotional spaces—signs, banners, brochures, web graphics, even the exhibition catalogue. To use them as a site, and to envision being a sort of parasite in the show. Lice, after all! He said, “Think: world takeover.” I met with the book designer, who told me everything had to be in black and white, and that most of the book’s pages would be filled with text. So, a world takeover, but with a set of Post-its and a pen. A coup d’sharpie.

A bus bench in Los Angeles with an illustration by Olivia Mole. Photo: Rindon Johnson.

It didn’t feel right to produce one mascot for such a multitudinous show, so I decided to gather an assembly of disparate characters I had devised for previous projects. They organically formed a collective that mirrors the group of artists in the show, inhabiting a parallel space. I drew some early sketches of them frolicking within photos of the museum’s empty galleries, but the images didn’t feel neutral enough. I wanted to work with a virtual space because I see it more as potential space, like a circumstantial vacuum. With a truly empty domain, I felt freedom for them to really fuck around.

That’s when I turned to the grid. Before architectural renderings and special effects could be made on the computer, three-dimensional space had to be constructed by hand. Back in the day I had learned how to draw perspective in a highly technical way—there’s quite a bit of math. These latticed interiors are taken from a 1980s reference called the Perspective Grid Sourcebook, which contains a huge array of spaces and perspectives, rendered only from black lines. It’s divine.

For the “Lifes” publication, I immediately thought about medieval marginalia. There’s an amazing book called Image on the Edge that discusses the antiauthoritarian roles of the creatures that decorate the margins of medieval texts. They were always so irreverent, and responded to the otherwise austere writings in such mischievous ways. They had a subaltern social agency, like the Beavis and Butthead of the Middle Ages.

I brought in ten characters, whom I hope perform a similar function. It’s like going to the museum with your imbecile friends, who are a bit embarrassing but also make it more fun. There’s Bambi, who is now a jaded, cigarette-smoking cynic. There’s the unicorn from the “Hunt for the Unicorn” tapestries, the spear still in its haunch, who’s gotten a bit curvy and more cartoonish. Then there’s a trio: a tree, the Charmin Bear, and Skeletor. The tree sometimes manifests as a tree costume, but sometimes it’s an actual tree. The squirrel arrived unplanned, swinging from the tree, a jubilantly idiotic little animal who’s always leaking piss but super happy about whatever is happening. Skeletor is like someone dressed up as Skeletor to go to, say, Comic-Con. The Charmin Bear is also a far cry from the original. A worm has extra little arms that she uses to make the peace sign, or turn the pages of her book. The water cooler is smart, like a “smart” appliance, but whose “machine intelligence” is a squirming fart blob. There’s a group of three little cubes, who are gradually gaining sentience as they observe all the pandemonium. Lastly, the cloud and the pile of shit serve as spiritual, mystical figures. The cloud is a masculine sort of deity, and the golden shit pile is feminine, like a divine mother. It’s a motley crew. I’m not sure if any of them are primed for world takeover, but that’s hardly what anyone needs more of these days.