Philadelphia

Michael Olszewski

Nexus-Foundation for Today's Art

The feminist art dialogue of the ’70s freed a lot of media long damned as “craftsy.” By nurturing the use of traditional craft techniques and materials in the creation of (anti/non-functional) art, it also started breaking down the dialectically exclusive definitions of art and craft. Looking at Michael Olszewski’s “fabric constructions” (his term), I am reminded of an exchange between Lucy Lippard and Joan Snyder (taped in ’73, printed in Ms. in ’75). Responding to Lippard’s question as to how Snyder can “tell women’s art from men’s art,” Snyder answers: “It has to do with a kind of softness, layering, a certain color sensibility, a more expressive work than any man is going to do right now, and a repetitiousness—use of grids, obsessive in a way.” That was seven years ago, years which have seen men moving toward the kind of “expressive work” which Snyder then rightly associated with women. Olszewski’s art is a case in point.

Each of the ten fabric constructions in his “Bise” series starts with a rectangle of dyed China silk, done with a wax resist process involving up to four applications of acid and cold water dyes. When the colors have set, Olszewski bastes and pleats the fabric in horizontal bands. The pleats are loosely stitched with threads of approximate colors and different weights. Some areas are discreetly hand-painted or airbrushed; abstract, seemingly gestural notations are appliquéd and embroidered on the surface. It’s a process which is, for the most part, dependent on homely domestic accomplishments. Olszewski’s main emphasis is on the rhythmic properties of abstract composition—a very painterly concern. The silk is a ground for the dyes; the pleating, piecing and embroidery provide surface tension. Attention to the parts is not encouraged; the whole is the point.

Olszewki’s mastery of his dyes gives the constructions an extraordinary translucent luster. The unbacked silk ripples like stirred water; colors flash and fade as if applied in a wash. Strokes of intensified color (appropriately resembling the “Segantini stitch” adapted by Marsden Hartley) add cohesiveness to the composition. Occasional, gametelike cicatrices dart across the surface; flat appliqués of silk interrupt and reorient the eye to the louvered pleats. Each piece adheres to a strict rectilinear formula which only infrequently allows an ungathered wisp of fabric to glide off the picture plane.

Attempting to harness the aggressive spontaneity of abstract imagery through humble, time-consuming methods is a tricky business (akin to creating an embroidery pattern for a Pollock mural). Olszewski’s work flirts with low art forms like “artist-designed” napkins or corporate wall hangings. Yet, there is a schematic elegance about the constructions which manages to smother any incipient preciousness. Unlike many fabric artists, Olszewski has emphatically sidestepped issues of popular culture and functional history (his silk is his canvas). He clearly entertains no second thoughts concerning the appropriateness of fabric manipulation as a high art concern. That the work appears so quietly refined is, however, a property of its “craft” heritage. That heritage also results in “a kind of softness, layering,” and “certain color sensibilities.” Olszewki’s “Bise” series is very like Anne, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Persuasion: “extremely pretty . . . with gentleness, modesty, taste, and feeling.”

Richard Flood