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Demonstrating formal finesse, visual wit and disarmingly direct technique, the recent paintings of Olive Ayhens are a pleasure to behold. The profusion of anecdotal detail in this artist’s work (in particular, her obvious fondness for certain members of the animal kingdom) suggests a dreamlike narrative symbolism, but that doesn’t obscure the fact that she’s also an abstractionist of the first order.
Ayhens trained at San Francisco Art Institute in the 1970s and has shown her work steadily ever since; Interior Wilderness, her current solo exhibition, is her second at Lori Bookstein Fine Art. Included are nine medium-sized paintings — in oil on canvas or linen, from the last five years — that attest to Ayhens’s command of her pictorial means: elastic or distorted space, a distinctive palette, and a willingness to allow realism to dissolve into pure abstraction. That these elements are knit together just a bit uneasily adds to the works’ power and charm.
“Carnac” (2011) depicts the extensive Neolithic site on the coast of Brittany from an elevated vantage point, contrasting parallel rows of partially buried boulders with endless lines of tiny cars. Ayhens’s lively application takes care of the paint’s descriptive function with a minimum of fuss, yet the site seems inhabited by ancient spirits, as if there might be faces or figures disguised in the rock. The landscape itself is both stretched and flattened; abrupt diagonals connect the distant, verdant horizon to the foreground’s lolling cows and azure sea.
More often, though, Ayhens uses linear perspective not to anchor space but to destabilize it, as in “Cockatiels and Crystals” (2013). An improvisation on the interior of Grand Central Station, the painting folds together opulent Beaux-Arts decorative flourishes, shimmering glass windows, polished marble floors swarming with tiny pedestrians, a bank of escalators, and of course those fabulous chandeliers. Dotting the canvas and surveying the scrambled scene are eight yellow-and-orange parrots; the painting’s bird’s-eye view places the gallery-goer right up there among them.
Spatial contradictions are also productively managed in “Memories of Beasts Past” (2013). Dozens of creatures of widely varying shape, size and demeanor — mainly dogs and cats, but also birds, horses, an antelope, and maybe a water buffalo — lounge in companionable disarray across the floor of a curious, vaulted-roof interior that’s equal parts Northern Renaissance portico and Orientalized harem. The painting’s organization is engagingly incoherent in the upper half, where space collapses, while below, the menagerie of memory collapses time.
Alluding to the cityscape of New York, the raucous, rollicking “Flecks in the Foam” (2012) features a panoramic view of the urban fabric as seen from offshore, rendered in the artist’s bustling style. At 59 by 67 inches, it is the largest painting in the exhibition. On the right side of this jumble of architectural types, an out-of-scale revolving door promises entry but goes who knows where; on the left is a vignette of a computer lab or command station festooned with an enormous tangle of multicolored cables. In the foreground, a monster wave crashes against a boardwalk, while nearby a cortege of police cruisers emerges from a cavernous garage. To the post–Hurricane Sandy viewer, the encroaching sea evokes global climate change, rising ocean levels, and general calamity.
Like the work of Florine Stettheimer (whose paintings Ayhens’s somewhat resemble), these canvases are accessible and inviting but by no means a breeze to decipher. A savvy poker player, Ayhens keeps her cards close to her chest — not easy to do while also spilling out profuse and eccentric pictorial details. This contradiction is the work’s central, animating paradox. It’s unclear to what extent the artist’s subject matter is cultural symbol, narrative device, autobiographical marker, or just the fun of paint — as, for example, the mismatched pair of midcentury modern lounge chairs in the foreground of “Remembering my Chickens”(2010). Wine-red, they snap against a cluster of prickly cacti rendered in a range of greens, manically dashed and dotted in pale tints and near-white with a tiny brush: a painter’s joke about “touch,” perhaps. A splash of bright orange, the titular barnyard fowl hold down the lower right corner, while above and beyond them a hallucinatory hybrid of indoors and outdoors recedes into deep space.
The exhibition’s oxymoronic title describes that fusion of imaginary realms, apparently borrowed from a painting of the same title. At the center of “Interior Wilderness” (2009–10) is a rippling pool edged with reeds, weeds, rocks, frogs, and a bit of unnatural tile work. The backdrop to this simulacrum of nature is a disorderly aggregation of period interior details — ranging from those of a Gilded Era mansion to a post-War warehouse — like some vaguely ominous Merzbau of the mind. As in Ayhens’s best work, a psychological dimension emerges in the painting, pointing the way to the interior, untamed wilderness of the artist’s subconscious imagination.
Olive Ayhens: Interior Wilderness continues at Lori Bookstein Fine Art (138 Tenth Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 28.
“Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants—11.3 per 1,000 black babies, compared with 4.9 per 1,000 white babies, according to the most recent government data—a racial disparity that is actually wider than in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery, when most black women were…
he ownership of images has a long and nuanced legal history, which has evolved dramatically in recent years as cultural standards and photographic technologies have rapidly advanced
The show, which honors the 50th anniversary of an exhibition history once ignored, continues a series of projects documenting Wilmington’s contemporary art scene.
Renty and his daughter Delia. Renty was an enslaved African, kidnapped from the Congo, sold and forced into slave labor on the South Carolina plantation of B.F. Taylor
What is the relation between possessing a person, possessing their image, and dispossessing their progeny
As a scholar of African American history and photography whose work has focused on the status of violent images in museums and archives, I fully support the validity of Ms. Tamara Lanier’s claim and the amicus brief.
Two K-12 art teachers will each receive a $1,000 cash gift and an additional $500 to put toward classroom art supplies. Nominations are due October 31.
The daguerreotypes of Renty Taylor, Delia, Drana, Alfred, Jack, George Fassena, and Jem remained in an unused storage cabinet until 1975, when it was discovered by an employee of the Peabody Museum.
I am writing in support of the amicus curiae brief submitted by Professor Ariella Aïsha Azoulay of Brown University for the full restitution of the daguerreotypes of Renty Taylor and his daughter Delia, currently held by Harvard University, to their familial descendant, Tamara Lanier.
We cannot be indifferent to the long-lasting effects of photography. The photographs at the center of Lanier v. Harvard are relentless in making Renty and Delia Taylor work and perform as slaves. The pain inflicted on them has not ceased. Photography has the capacity to propagate harm, and we have the moral obligation to interrupt…