Irene Hardwicke Olivieri: Breakfast in the Forest: Paintings, Drawings, PaleoGirls
Robert Berman Gallery, Santa Monica
September 7 to October 12, 2013
By Megan Abrahams
The paintings of Irene Hardwicke Olivieri are a portal into a mythological realm. Entering, it’s as if we’ve stumbled through the back of a wardrobe envisioned by C.S. Lewis. There we encounter the inhabitants of a magical world, where Narnia-like woodland animals with mystical features co-exist with the likeness of a benevolent young female. Her image, a self-portrait of Olivieri, surfaces repeatedly, the ardent narrator of an enchanting fairy tale, conveyed in paint. On the surface, Olivieri has created surreal but tranquil vistas populated by benign forest creatures. Looking beyond the superficial, her paintings are more than simply beautiful and lyrical images. On a deeper level, they are the symbolic visual expression of the artist’s impassioned environmental manifesto.
The symbolism is not concealed. Many of the paintings incorporate intricate lines of text, in infinitesimal hand-painted lettering woven throughout the background. Sentences, many of which pose questions, imbue the work with the artist’s message, an underlying intention to raise our environmental consciousness. Who will save the secrets of the creatures? (2013, Oil on antique steel headboard, 52 X 38 inches) includes tiny rows of phrases, interwoven through the branches of a tree. The composition conforms to the contours of the headboard on which it is painted. A Madonna-like self-portrait dominates the foreground. The tree trunk, in faint outline, dissects the face. Little vignettes in the background include two versions of the female figure and animals perched on the branches, with hand-painted lettering laced through. The text poses numerous questions, as in the title of the painting, such as “Who will save the secrets of the creatures? And what would they tell us if we could listen? How can we speak out for the trees, for those who stand tall and quiet?”
Emphasizing her affinity for nature, the artist occasionally portrays herself as part creature, at one with the animals. Her self-portrait has morphed into a human-cat hybrid in Coaxing a better me, (2012, Oil on antique metal table top, 30 X 30 inches). In an earlier work, Breakfast in the forest, (2011, Oil on panel, 15.5 X 20 inches) the title piece of the exhibition, the artist depicts herself with a tail, her skin spotted like a leopard. She is on her knees, nursing from the teat of a large cat in the woods. Her palette leans against the tree.
The largest painting, Some kind of wilderness (2010, Oil on panel, 46 X 46 inches) is the climax of the exhibition. In it, the self-portrayed female embraces a phantom male figure that seems to represent the essence of the wilderness. His form is composed of a delicate tracery of vines, trees, leaves and flowers. In the background, concentric lines of text form a subtly textured motif, documenting various endangered plants and animals, and noting newly discovered species, as in: “Two tiny lemur species were discovered recently in Madagascar.” Butterflies, coffee, a fluorescent frog and orchids are among the many living organisms described in miniscule hand-painted letters. The female subject has a green cast, as if subsumed in the nature she seeks to chronicle and protect.
Olivieri’s paintings are a form of memoir, at times weaving in family members and alluding to her coming-of-age. The artist portrays herself variously as human, part cat, and as an artist activist. In Satisfaction (2012, Oil on wood, 24.5 X 16.5 inches) she has transformed herself into a sort of satyr. Above her head, she holds a hunter clothed in camouflage. His rifle and hat tumble to the ground. Bullets pepper the sky and forest animals gather around. She is often shown holding her paintbrushes, as in No playing small (2010, Mixed media, 27.5 X 23.5 inches) a composite of self-portraits, including one of her nude figure suspended in a teardrop. She grasps a bundle of paintbrushes under her arm, and holds a palette in one hand. On the palette is an Alice-in-Wonderland-like caterpillar with a human head, holding its own brush, poised to paint. The image is inscribed with the delicate words: “No matter what happens, I always have my paint and brushes.”
Olivieri’s compositions are visions—engaging by themselves irrespective of the imbedded meaning. Her embrace of the natural world, combined with her predilection for a jewel-like palette, suggests a sort of feminine reincarnation of a Pre-Raphaelite sensibility. The use of found objects and recycled material—a wooden door, an antique wooden panel and an antique steel headboard—as the ground for some of her paintings, adds another layer to the artist’s compositions while further demonstrating her commitment to the environment.
Also included in this exhibit are Olivieri’s PaleoGirls, a series of mosaic nude figures created from porcupine quills and the tiny bones the artist discovers in owl pellets. In relief, the white bones contrast with a darker background, like Wedgewood china from a macabre parallel universe. Overall, this body of work is characterized by an overriding concern with the smallest of details. Each mark bears enormous significance, and contains extraordinary depth of meaning. This devotion to the fine points permeates Olivieri’s work, adding layers of complexity, and beckoning us to look more closely.
Megan Abrahams is a Los Angeles-based writer and artist. The managing editor of Fabrik Magazine, she is also a contributing art critic for Art Ltd., Fabrik, ArtPulse and Whitehot magazines. Megan attended art school in Canada and France. She is currently writing her first novel and working on a new series of paintings.
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