On ViewGalerie Buchholz
January 24–March 5, 2016
Henrik Olesen, again and again, makes works that are feedback loops of the rather self-replicating and/or wormhole-y type. They convey information, and facilitate (our) understanding of it, back onto themselves, but they also threaten—rightly so—to upend the structures and/or dimensions that made such a cycle possible. Often presented as a lesson plan (for example, Some Faggy Gestures (2007)), a set of bulletin board-like collages that charts certain poses in 500 years of male pictorial and sculptural representation), Olesen’s works are, in the words of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “desiring-machines,” contraptions that, at their best, function like the jaws-of-life on so-called “best” practices and received ideas.
Olesen is quite deft at orchestrating mise-en-scène. With these two concurrent exhibitions, he has made good use of an uptown/downtown divide by pulling a kind of bait-and-switch. Up at Buchholz on East 82nd, we’re faced with a kind of stereotypically “downtown” show, deconstructed here, provisional there, in key ways (seemingly) site-specific; while down at Reena Spaulings on East Broadway, we come upon an “uptown” high modernism reasonably reconstructed at center stage (we even step up onto a platform), more of a pushback against the provisional and the site-specific in both form and content.
Works that look as if they are the results of attempts at renovation anchor Olesen’s uptown presentation. The works in the “Ecken (Corners)” series (2016) appear to be the residue of the stripping of extended triangular lengths of plaster and wood that had been attached to the corners of the space with screws and silicone. Carefully yet casually lined up on the floor, they recall key Bruce Nauman sculptures, if not Post-Minimalism overall. However, other interventions—like the instances of sheetrock left uncovered as if it were just installed—brought to mind the early work of Glen Seator, who, during the beginning of the 1990s, produced an influential series of “failed repairs,” “spills,” and “wallraisings” that would lead to an ambitious “queering” of space in his later works up until his untimely death in 2002. Reinstating Olesen’s particular point of view was left up to four collages on adjoining sheets of Masonite board, After Dhalgren I, II, III, and IV (all 2015). The title connects the displays to Samuel Delany’s complicated science-fiction novel about a damaged and irreconcilable midwestern city, and the works present their imagery of ruin and desire in a poetic rather than analytic manner: pictures of smoke and fire interspersed with scorpions, a man in leather, as well as stenciled circles and triangles, and, in one moment, a pin-up image of George Harrison, who has been made a hero downtown.
More than most galleries it always seems as if you enter Reena Spaulings in medias res, but this time Olesen’s full-scale mock-up of a classic Sir Anthony Caro sculpture—Early One Morning (1962)—demands immediate attention. The exhibition’s press release goes overboard to cast this replica as a “war machine or a torture device,” by way of Saint George, making the faux-Caro into, the text suggests, the dragon. No matter what we take from all that, it is true that it is positioned so that we step up to it from behind, a kind of surprise attack. Only then, when we turn around, do we get the payoff of the oversized poster of Harrison pasted onto the sculpture’s largest panel, and another feedback loop starts up: Caro is modern, and George (not the saint) is so mod-ern (and extra dreamy with his upward gaze), but what then to make of the rough collages of plastic drop cloths and photos of hanging carcasses of meat? Ever the educator (that is a compliment), Olesen has provided us with a couple of keys. The first is blatant: a freestanding metal pole at the lip of the stage, partially painted red and accompanied by the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno. It is, without question, a guide, and for added measure it made me think of a Barnett Newman zip, and a kind of divining rod if not a spear. The second key is found in the vertical streaks running down the face of George Harrison, who now stands in as Saint George: they are painterly and painful, deliberate and glitch, adornment and scarring, and they also add another artist to the mix—Francis Bacon—thereby providing the visual equivalent of a scream. Taking both shows together, it may well be that Olesen’s work overall does not resolve whether this would be a scream of pain or pleasure, but instead is determined to remind us of how often one can become the other.