Alex Olson’s paintings are less decorous than they seem at first glance. In fact, high drama is often hidden behind their moderate scale, formal elegance and sense of containment, which belie how assertively her work wrestles with paint as both material and sign. Marks that seem familiar quickly become unfamiliar; colour functions in surprising ways. Her paintings also suggest a conflicting array of actions that include spreading, pouring, wiping, scraping, abrading and sponging, but also writing or leafing through books.
In previous works, Olson overlaid scrawled grids or fields of cursive marks or scratches with radiant splotches, graphic squiggles and flat areas of paint. Something different was going on in the paintings in her most recent show ‘Palmist and Editor’, which featured varied pairings exploring tensions between contradictory ways of presenting or interpreting information; this syntactical gamesmanship extended to interplay between the paintings. The show’s title suggested both an expansion of possibilities and a paring down – as well as the textured lines of the palm and the smoothed-out lines of text associated with editing – and similar disjunctions were at work throughout the show.
The paintings hung nearly flush with the walls, on thin stretchers, directing attention to the surfaces of the works, which could be read in various ways. Olson uses mundane, even crude, tools – palette knives, window scrapers, cheap brushes – to create discrete layers of alternately delicate and emphatic indexical marks. Some works are built on a layer of paint textured with allover brushstrokes or swirls that recall the patterns on cheaply plastered ceilings. The paint Olson then applies either delicately stains the grooves or sits atop it in a thick, opaque layer. Relay (all works 2012), one of the larger works in the show, initially suggests two elegant decorative columns of blossoms or birds, but the feathery shapes are simply areas of paint that seem to have been sponged on – or sponged on and wiped off – over the textured ground.
In the more comical Divulge, a wide pinkish band with wavy sides like the cartoonish result of a huge tool dragging paint down the canvas at an angle, is layered over a charcoal-grey ground textured with allover spirals. If flesh, or silly putty, could be squeegeed onto a surface, it might resemble this emphatic pink shape. Divulge is one of several paintings in which Olson has neatly applied thick swathes or stripes while leaving a messy edge. It’s as if with the same gesture she’s depicting a brick and the cement oozing beneath it: both stasis and movement, solid and liquid. In Place, wide blue and white lines made with a palette knife – leaving a ridge of paint where the knife was lifted from the canvas – create a Rothko-esque composition: a larger rectangle formed of white marks stacked on a smaller one formed of blue marks, on a tan ground. The ground also evokes aged paper, just as the jaunty arrangement of lines somehow recalls mid-century illustration, making the lines’ heft all the more startling.
In Place and other works in the show, high Modernist painting seemed to be a distant touchstone. Palms for an Editor suggests a muted echo of work by Barnett Newman – with red layered over blue in a stripe down the centre of the canvas, against a mottled grey background – although the scale is closer to that of a reproduction in a lavish coffee-table book and the motivation entirely different. In all of Olson’s work it’s as though surfaces have been placed under a spotlight to better allow them to be read, interpreted and speak to one another.