Rune Olsen

Samson Projects

For his first solo show, Brooklyn-based Norwegian artist Rune Olsen conjured a startling scene composed of intricate sculptures portraying various animals fighting and mating, frozen in postures of dominance and compliance. In a disquieting fusion of natural and unnatural history, a rabbit mounts a rooster, two bull elephants tangle trunks, a stag licks his partner’s bloodied antler, and a black bear lewdly flaunts his engorged tongue and sharp teeth.

Constructed from wire and welded steel armatures filled with wads of newspaper and covered with layers of white archival tape, the sculptures are defined by and decorated with expressive lines of graphite. According to the press release, “physical enlargement of body parts was presumed, by early psychology, to correlate with an excessively large male organ, which was considered a factor in determining homosexuality,” so it may be presumed that these warring and mutually desirous beasts, struggling for pleasure and survival, allegorize outdated assumptions about sexual orientation.

Olsen’s new body of work also blends personal narrative with social comment. The artist’s total empathy for his mating males is made clear by their glass mannequin eyes, all of which are fabricated by German craftsmen to match Olsen’s own striking light blue ones. Although these life-size tableaux may seem less controversial than Olsen’s earlier images of bestiality (For Everything I Long to Do, 2005, for example, a sculptural homage to Hokusai’s print A Pearl Diver and Two Octopuses, 1814, featuring a dreadlocked nude man being serviced by an octopus), these images remain powerful expressions of gruesome torture and predatory sexuality. And in every work here except for Cock ’n’ Rabbit (all works 2007), the subjects of which are still intact, all Olsen’s beasts appear as trophy heads, reminiscent of animatronic spare parts.

Physical desire is, for Olsen, “sensual and destructive, corporeal and mental.” Velvet portrays two wall-mounted white-tailed buck trophies. They are in “rut”—a behavioral state during which females are competed for through combat—yet they engage rather lovingly with one another: The dominant male passionately tongues the velvet, or peeling skin, off the new antlers of his docile mate. Jealous, the show’s centerpiece, unites two African elephant heads. Hanging from a steel chain, their severed spines indicate that the heads have been ripped from their bodies. Olsen’s bulls are preserved in the periodic state known as “musth”—during which a significant rise in their reproductive hormones causes them to become highly aggressive. The fight for sexual dominance is here equated to gay lovemaking as tusks are locked together, eyes meet, and trunks are intertwined. Olsen allows the newspaper stuffing to show through the animals’ severed necks, reminding us that these sculptures are infused with real social issues. His animals are thus not only stand-ins for the artist; they signify the beast in us all.

Francine Koslow Miller