Henrik Olesen at Galerie Buchholz
May 2 - June 29, 2019
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, June 2019
Something of the disquiet we find in the art of Robert Gober occurs in this show of work by the Danish-born Henrik Olesen, who is now based in Berlin. Olesen, like Gober openly queer, has put very simple objects--glass boxes, open cubes with newspaper photos, a resin piece looking a lot like a sharply angled boomerang--that don’t fit into any overall gestalt. Entrances to rooms in the gallery are framed with a thin strip of red; they become portals into an atmosphere somehow evocative of gay desire. The work is deliberately awkward, silently announcing its inability to fit in. We sense, even if we cannot prove, a psychology of the margins, in which the protocol of queer yearning is not so much deliberately expressed (although there is a repeated photo of a young man licking someone’s foot) as it is a part of an atmosphere redolent of poignancy and psychic pain. But this reading is intuitive, not being based on access to the artist himself. Even so the ambience of the entire exhibition is disjunctive, weighted with a private symbolism, and devoted to a code belonging to a limited coterie.
Inevitably, though, a show is good if it communicates not only to initiates but to an audience larger than the one immediately surrounding the artist. Olesen is very good at promulgating a personal esthetic, but at times its terms are so obscure as to be beyond the reach of most of his audience. But then are artist’s esthetics are not the objects themselves, they are the thinking that surrounds them. So it doesn’t matter what Olesen is thinking so much as it matters what he makes--but what he makes is indirect in its complexity to the point of being impenetrably obscure. Inevitably, and obviously, this poses a problem for the viewer, no matter how sympathetic he or she may be to the psychological circumstances of queer art. Olesen has chosen to relay a discomfort that is not overtly erotic but rather materials-oriented. The idiom’s trappings convey an interest both in minimalism and arte povera--perhaps the two most important art movements of the second half of the last century. So Olesen is working on both a historical and a personal level. The combination makes the show highly intriguing, even if its vocabulary defies easy comprehension.
Looking at Glass Box Low and Glass Box High (2019), the viewer may find himself bewildered by the close-to-absolute absence of artifice. Both works are identical: horizontal glass boxes supported by L-shaped brackets attached to the wall. The visual appeal of these works is less than compelling! It can be said that the lack of artistry, a deliberate choice on Olesen’s part, is at least partially intended to distance the viewer from codes of esthetic authority. At the same time, the display is eloquent of a mistrust and psychic malaise that we assume is highly personal. Corner (2019) is simply two thin strips of metal, joined together so as to produce a right-angled corner. Again, like the glass boxes, the visual statement is minimal, deliberately lacking in interest. In making work like this, Olesen shifts the discussion away from visuals to more immaterial concerns. But the works are so indirect as to defy close analysis and cogent interpretation. In another work, titled Madhouse (2019), two orange, rectangular boxes are placed midway up one of the gallery walls. In an art historical sense, they are derivative, looking like reminders of work by Donald Judd. But their title changes everything--is Olesen referring to his own experience, or is he commenting on a social institution. It isn’t clear, and the obscurity of the his intention both piques our curiosity and disappoints are need to make sense of the work.
The last piece to be discussed, Festival of the Unconscious: Helicopter, Airplane, Ship (2019), consists of a wooden box open to the viewer’s gaze, with silkscreen images of the three conveyances described. These are means of transport--maybe they are vehicles intended to escape the unconscious so heavily evident in the atmosphere of the show. LIke all of Olesen’s work, it is hard to make connections between image and intention. Instead, a loosely joined affiliation of psychology, eroticism, and minimal materials combine in an atmosphere that is distinctly beyond the pale. If the ambience is less than dread, it is more than melancholic, being silently troubling to an unusual degree People who don’t know Olesen--and that is most of us visiting the show--may ascribe the discomfiture as entirely personal. But that is likely not the case. Instead, it also seems to be a social statement generated by private circumstances. Even so, we cannot be sure since Olesen is holding his cards close to his vest. His symbolism is inherently private, although it begs to be elucidated. As happens with so much art today, our reading may indicate our own outlook and values more than those of the artist whose work we speak of. Interpretation almost always makes this mistake, especially if it is encouraged by terms that are close to impossible to read clearly. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
view all articles from this author