Los Angeles

Scott Olson

Scott Olson paints small abstractions of irregular and fragmented geometries that give a somewhat unexpected initial impression of familiarity, age, and wear. The eleven oil paintings (on linen or MDF) that made up his Los Angeles debut employ distinctly traditional techniques from a century past and refer to the pictorial methods of early modernist abstraction; they repeatedly conjure, in their compositions and reduced size, the modest quietude of works by Paul Klee. They are heavy with an indefinite, though palpable, sense of history, as though they have been unearthed or rediscovered after a long period of neglect.

Each painting is about the size of a laptop, the largest measuring twenty by fifteen inches—downsized abstractions for our economic downturn. All of Olson’s compositions appear cropped in some way, most with horizontal bands across the top or bottom or both. The primary visual activity in these works is separated from the edges by margins of raw or monochromatically painted canvas, as though Olson is depicting both a painting and part of the wall on which it hangs. A smaller composition, then, nests within each painting—a square inset framed by a vertical rectangle.

Imbued with an air of age and great warmth, Olson’s palette is muted and muddied, dominated by understated grays, off-whites, burnt umbers, dark maroons, navies, browns, and ochers. On occasion, a brighter hue punctuates the works. The pictures’ subdued luminosity is that of candlelight—they often look greasy, waxy, and smoke-stained. In anachronistically summoning a modernist aesthetic, Olson’s works often evoke the ghost of industrialism’s soot and oil. Thin washes on one canvas (all works Untitled, 2008) leave tiny pools of dirty brown grease, as though the surface has been touched by a mechanic’s sopping sponge.

Generally consistent in palette and tone, the paintings’ imagery varies from vaguely pictographic, linear forms of whimsical delicacy to striated patterning and busy collage-like arrangements of overlapping shapes. The former are executed in translucent glazes and washes, while the latter tend to be built up more substantially using heavily worked textures. All of them result from a considered, if unpredictable and idiosyncratic, precision that is based on the subtle and varied layering of pigment. The material accretion involves both additions and subtractions and many combinations of paint treatments: speckled, transparent, glossy, matte, scrubbed, peeled, grooved, scumbled. To view Olsen’s works is to assume an investigative project: Parsing the techniques and materials used to create them requires careful inspection. Underpainting remains visible to varying degrees, the depth underscoring the importance of process without fully conveying chronology. Each of Olson’s surfaces presents a damaged archaeology of its own slow maturation.

The more the viewer homes in on a composition, the more differentiated it becomes. The act of viewing the works takes on a haptic aspect, concerned as the paintings are with establishing contact and affirming physical presence as a counter to the ubiquitous JPEG, which so commonly takes the place of the object it images and forms the basis by which so much art is now viewed and sold. Demanding proximity and patience, Olson draws us away from the clipped pace of remote, digital viewing and rewards prolonged personal encounters with insistently material histories.

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer