Abstract Dissection: Alex Olson at Lisa Cooley

Alex Olson dialogues with her paintings, building up layers of oil on linen, asserting with palette knives or opining with a window scraper. When she is satisfied with the exchange, she backs off, revealing an array like those comprising Palmist and Editor, her second solo exhibition at Lisa Cooley. Each is so imbued with the history of its creation that it's not quite accurate to call them “nonreferential”. Like the exhibition title alludes, we must read them. — Brian Fee, Austin contributor

Alex Olson | Relay, 2012, Oil on linen. 75 x 53 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Lisa Cooley, New York.

There's a great quote in Olson's interview “Remarks on Surface” with Eric Crosby for Walker Art Center's blog. She notes her mark-making as referential, but expands on it by saying her “focus is on choreographing these marks in ways that prompt a desire to read, but without providing precise language to do so. It's about suspending the act of looking and judging for the viewer, and hopefully encouraging a constant reassessment of these judgements.” Relay is a great example of this, hanging in the furthest point in the gallery, prompting our slow approach as we excavate its imagery. I first saw fireworks in two multicolored columns floating over a brushy white expanse. A bit closer, lurid wallpaper and its lithograph-like opposite. Nearing the canvas, shards of black paint scratched from the background, complicating Relay's layered inception. What came first?

Alex Olson | Relay (detail), Courtesy of the artist and Lisa Cooley, New York.

Alex Olson | Divulge, 2012, Oil on linen. 63 x 43 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Lisa Cooley, New York.

More questions arise in Divulge, itself an encoded verb of a title. A peachy wave of oil paint peels from the steel-wool-colored surface, revealing a similar swirling pattern in its wake. First comment: is the undercoating peach and the dark gray an oxidizing addition, or do they exist separately? Secondly: Olson must have taped it off for that sharp ripple effect, right? Her modus operandi provides a clue to both questions. She got in there and scraped away, “remarking” on the canvas while exposing its surface. Print (May-August) features a similar physicality, if we understand what she did to achieve this bevy of multicolored swipes. Those colors reflect this exhibition's entire palette, conveyed to Print (May-August) via her fingers while working on the set. Like a similar painting at Shane Campbell Gallery earlier this year, it reflects a visceral aide-mémoire of Olson's progress.

Alex Olson | Print (May–August), 2012, Oil on linen. 18 x 14 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Lisa Cooley, New York.

Alex Olson | Palmist and Editor installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Lisa Cooley, New York.

I like Olson's directness with her paintings' surfaces, like how she squeegee'd broad blood-orange bars across the gauzy, drybrushed grayscale Weave. These measured bands may seem at odds with the lyrical backdrop, like crashing Park Seo-bo's austere mechanics with Christopher Wool's gritty choreography—yet Olson's sure hand makes it believable, and the combination works. Same with Text for a Palmist, where it seems Olson obliterated the left half of a diaphanous composition with thin, seafoam-hued paint. I can only write “it seems” because I still do not totally trust my eyes. Maybe that anemone of colors always existed only on the right. Palms for an Editor I better understand, only because I asked, yet I still marvel at the oil-slick bisecting the smoky linen like a rusted water stain, itself containing some dozen layers of colors lovingly revealed, and scraped away, by the artist. Olson doesn't treat her works preciously, but she brings them to the exact stage where we, the viewers, become that palmist and editor to contemplate them further.

Alex Olson | Palms for an Editor, 2012, Oil on linen. 24 x 18 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Lisa Cooley, New York.

Alex Olson | Couple, 2012, Oil on linen. 75 x 53 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Lisa Cooley, New York.


Alex Olson lives and works in Los Angeles. She received a BA from Harvard University in 2001, and an MFA from CalArts in 2008. Recent exhibitions include Made in LA, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Laura Bartlett Gallery, London; Shane Campbell Gallery, Chicago; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Her work is included in the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Palmist and Editor is her second solo exhibition at Lisa Cooley and continues through October 21.

Brian Fee is an art punk currently based in Austin, TX. His culture blog Fee's List covers his three loves (art, film, live music) occurring in his other three loves (the Lone Star State, the Big Apple, and Tokyo).

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