Sig Olson: This Has Happened
On ViewTappeto Volante
November 16, 2022 – January 22, 2023
Sig Olson’s first solo exhibition This Has Happened, curated by art historian Ksenia M. Soboleva, leads with an ambitious thesis. Per Soboleva’s introduction to the exhibition’s zine, Olson’s current work is a trauma response. These artworks, on view in the second room at the Tappeto Volante gallery in Gowanus, might be described in general terms as abstraction—color-field paintings on paper. The artist’s marks, evocative of the muddy greens, cool yellows, and brick reds of Beverly Buchanan’s dreamy shacks, swirl, tessellate, or stack into unusual, vibrant forms that are difficult to place. Her Blanket (2022), of course, references the Navajo-stripes of a warm and comforting blanket. Further works, however, transform their real-world referents into lively, fibrous patterns of warp and weft: Building (2011), a woven rag-rug; Go As A River (2022), a stack of sweaters; Creamsicle (undated), perhaps a flannel button-down. Indeed, Sunshine (2021) and Open Windows (2020) may allude to unhampered vision in their titles, but they look more like the patterned fabrics through which a morning’s sunshine beams, as if Agnes Martin did kitchen curtains. Olson works air and light into a diaphanous screen, a visual poetics of blindness reminiscent of Kay Sage. According to Soboleva, after surviving the height of the AIDS epidemic and many dear friends, some lost to AIDS, others to addiction, Olson became “tormented by representation,” and turned towards the abstract style of these current artworks. The exhibition’s framing invites a psychoanalytic response.
In the first gallery, visitors get a glimpse of what has happened. Olson’s 35mm photographs of their queer life in 1990s San Francisco offer snapshots of friends, lovers, and fairies in all their leathery, feathery finery. In one image, a person sporting a pixie cut and canvas hiking hat looks away from the camera, a smooch of pink lipstick smacked just to the side of their own made-up lips (#39). A kiss has happened. These past moments—and more to the point, past people—are what Olson no longer wishes to represent in art. The lion’s share of the photographs hang scattered upon a sliding steel blast door, interspersed with Olson’s newer color-field paintings, leaving one with the impression of exploded contact sheets. Perhaps the blast door was not shut in time? Looking carefully at a hazy image of an apartment (#04), hanging above a floor strewn with clothes, blankets, and other leavings of the night before, we discover the plaid curtains evoked by so many of the seemingly non-representational artworks on view. It is not quite right to call Olson’s paintings abstract. Olson may have tried to shut the blast door, but repressed traumas return nonetheless. Sometimes these even constitute the wool, or curtain, we thought we had pulled over our eyes. Olson’s paintings offer a powerful meditation on how and what we who live (and therefore suffer) see.
Two sculptural works elaborate Olson’s paintings into three dimensions. One of these, It Can Take Awhile (2022), translates tartan forms into a literal textile, the kind of thick rope you’d find on a ship, snaked through a pulley system, before a panel of Jarman blue. Terminating in a pile and ultimately attached to nothing, the rope engages the imagination, and is pretty funny too—it would indeed take awhile to hoist nothing. This is not the only nothing at the heart of this artwork. Named for the queer British filmmaker Derek Jarman, Jarman blue is the color that tinted and eventually occluded the dying man’s vision during his final years afflicted by AIDS complications. The blue visualizes not-seeing, in death’s wake. And it took awhile—about six years in Jarman’s case. In psychoanalytic theory, one name for trauma is the Real. Not to be confused for reality (our normative perception of the world), the Real is unspeakable and invisible. “Real” is a positive designation for a negative, a void, that our consciousness cannot bear to see. Metaphorically, these holes might take the form of track marks or the permanent loss of friends. Like the rope tangled round an empty core, the Real organizes lived visual experience. As Olson’s artworks demonstrate, not-seeing can come to structure what we do see.
In his eleventh Seminar, Jacques Lacan offers a reading of Holbein’s The Ambassadors, famous for its play with an optical effect called anamorphosis. When viewed straight on, one can appreciate Holbein’s masterful representation of a sensuous world of green patterned textiles, fluffy furs, and supple velvets—but for an ugly splotch, hovering in our field of view. Perplexed, the viewer walks away but, like Orpheus, looks back for one last look, only to find that the world has faded to a distorted blur, at the center of which lurks death, a skull, in sudden, alarming clarity. For Lacan, the painting is an allegory: we cannot see a coherent representation of reality and the Real at once, and to experience a coherent reality, the Real must be repressed. If we look carefully, however, we may begin to notice a blindness at the heart of our vision, a spot like a smack of lipstick staining a cheek. Olson’s shimmering screens of color seem caught in a kind of anamorphosis. Like Holbein’s spot, they occupy that ambiguous space between the world of visible objects—buildings, rivers, creamsicles—and the unseeable.
In Full Moon, Provincetown (2019), a cloudy orange spot stains a misty ground of blue and gray stripes. If this spot represents the moon, it is a moon shining through a cumulus cloud, or its reflection glimmering upon the ocean’s shifting surface. Here, Olson offers an amorphous vision of light that they cannot quite see. Lacan refers to such visions, including the smiling eyes of Holbein’s skull, as the gaze:
In what is presented to me as space of light, that which is gaze is always a play of light and opacity. It is always that gleam of light … always that which prevents me … from making the light appear as an iridescence that overflows it. In short, the point of gaze always participates in the ambiguity of the jewel. And if I am anything in the picture, it is always in the form of the screen, which earlier I called the stain, the spot.1
“Abstraction” as a turn away from “representation” does not do Olson’s splendid Full Moon justice. The clouds, the veils, the screens, the curtains offer queer self-portraits, the site where Olson (and their past) is everything in the picture and yet overflows it. These queer portraits represent the performance of an artist wrestling with the unrepresentable and invisible traumas permeating visual experience. Artworks like Full Moon are “queer,” then, in the word’s full sense, reveling as they do in the ambiguity of the jewel. To put it another way, “queer” is a word whose contemporary definition is rather amorphous, but beneath this spot, a traumatic history—a slur—lingers still. As Olson’s artworks gaze upon me, I come in contact with that uncanny blindness at the heart of my own vision, the obscure queerness that permits queer people to endure in a world that seeks to kill us, still. Thoughtful visitors will appreciate Olson’s brave and beautiful reflection on the queerness of vision in the wake of queer personal history, in what I trust is only the first of many solo shows to come.
- Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Routledge, 2018), 96.