Henrik Olesen, intestine, black, red, horizontal, 2020, oil and mixed media on canvas, 15 3/4 × 19 3/4".

Henrik Olesen, intestine, black, red, horizontal, 2020, oil and mixed media on canvas, 15 3/4 × 19 3/4".

Henrik Olesen

What a surprise! Born in Denmark and long based in Berlin, Henrik Olesen is well known as a Conceptual artist whose objects, installations, and collages, which often focus on marginalized groups, interrogate the ways in which dominant power structures and social norms shape human identity, language, and the body. This show, however, did not feature collages or installations made up of photos, handwritten notes, pages torn from books, and newspaper clippings, but predominantly comprised paintings in oil and other materials on wood or canvas. Nevertheless, the starting point for Olesen’s new works was once more the body—a subject all the more urgent now, as the coronavirus pandemic has bitterly revealed to us how vulnerable our physical beings remain, notwithstanding all medical progress.

Inspired by the 1928–29 painting L’homme ouvert (L’autopsie) (The Open Man [The Autopsy]) by Jean Fautrier, who after World War II became one of the most important representatives of French art informel, Olesen focused on an interior organ, the intestine. Fautrier’s painting depicts a naked man in whose open stomach the intestine moves upward like a snake in regular horizontal loops. Near the entrance to the gallery, a printout featuring a photograph of the painting hung on the wall alongside the checklist. In another text, the artist proposed (in English, with a smattering of German) a tripartite, thematic subdivision of the exhibition: “1) the organ (intestines/stomach): digestion, waste, excretion, shit! 2) the plug: Kreislauf [circulation], Kabelsalat [cable spaghetti], sex! 3) the keyboard: fingertips, work, waste, pollution!”

Olesen replicated Fautrier’s image of the looping intestine in multiple canvases, always emphasizing its painterly qualities: the movement and power of the line, the palette, the relationship of differently colored sections to one another, the layering and superimposition of paint. While the intestine’s loops, running vertically here and horizontally there, could still be made out in the resulting works, they tended more strongly to abstraction and could be understood as an homage to the formal qualities of Fautrier’s painting as much as to its subject matter. Olesen even adopted the French painter’s characteristic accumulation of layers of paint in the center of his paintings. Most of the works on view here bore titles such as intestine, orange; intestine, black, red, vertical; intestine, black, red, horizontal; and organs (all works 2020). Apparently inspired by an activity of the intestine—excretion—were a couple of discolored brown abstract paintings respectively titled Body of Shit and Body of Shit 2.

Mounted next to the canvases were vertical power strips whose cables, echoing the loops of the intestines, ran down to the ground. These cords suggested circulation or communication—perhaps access to a virtual world? Such an interpretation seemed encouraged by black-silicone casts of computer keyboards set on card stock hanging on the walls of the second gallery. The keyboards appeared damaged, as if corroded by acid, and indeed most of these sequentially numbered works bore the title Auflösung (Dissolution). They looked like something the artist might have found in a junkyard.

However, the presence of cables and keyboards established a connection not to the digital world but to the world of painting, where via color, gestural brushstrokes, and the layering of paint the artist was quick to remind us of the not exactly lofty physical necessities of our bodies. What an absurdity—one short circuit that pointed to another, that of Conceptual art and painting when they are played off against one another. Good painting can’t do without concepts. In reminding us of this, Olesen remained true to his conceptual orientation as a painter for whom what actually matters is painting.

Translated from German by Alexander Scrimgeour.