The allegory of the Dance of Death, and its evocation of the agonies and ecstasies inherent to the life and death cycle, took on distinctly erotic overtones by the time it morphed into Death and the Maiden at the end of the 15th century. Symbolized by a naked young woman in a resigned tryst with the grim reaper, Death and the Maiden originates from the ancient Greek story of the abduction of Persephone by Hades, dragged to the underworld while picking flowers. The imagery is wrapped up in the inevitability of death, the four seasons, and the impermanence of youth, beauty, and earthbound existence.
Death and the Maiden, the title of artist Emilia Olsen’s inaugural show of paintings on view at Doppelgänger Studio in Ridgewood, breathes new life into this story. For Olsen, the Death and the Maiden theme appears to serve as a metaphor for artistic sustenance and renewal, as well as a manifestation of her political, climate, and existential anxieties. The thickly painted, rich works in the show have an open-ended ambiguity, at once ominous and uplifting, dropping plenty of key iconography while allowing the imagination to roam.
In many of the works, Olsen depicts writhing and aggressive vegetation and supine maidens in a reciprocal human and plant entanglement. The compositions teem with vestiges of the natural world: plant, animal, water, and air, and by analogy, Olsen brings to life the creative process through tactile layerings, gesture, revision, and improvisation. In different scenarios, a tangle of vines, jungle fronds, or a stubby ramble of cacti buds trap and encircle a woman in a puzzling union of pink flesh and greenery. She is often accompanied by a beaming skeleton, and a few small canvases feature skulls all by themselves.
Olsen works with patches of paint across the field of the canvas using bright, out-of-the-tube colors. She tends not to blend, which gives figurative elements a simple, pop naiveté. Depth and volume are suggested through planar twists and turns and by reading between the spaces of flat wall-to-wall shapes. She mixes caulk and pumice medium into her oils to accentuate the lush sensuality of flowers, bones, and cellulose, and her heavily painted strokes bring you back to the surface and the artist’s hand.
“Untitled” (2018) has a deep purple ground and flowers dominate the scene as they do in “New Mexico” (2018), where gobs of frosting-like paint suggest the petals and blood-orange colorings of a kingcup cactus, the maidens all but obscured. The muscular physicality and electric colors create beautiful abstract compositions that stretch across the picture plane and bring to mind Chaim Soutine’s series of Gladioli.
Olsen’s paintings, peppered with flowers, skulls, and intonations of the afterlife, evoke ritualistic icons of the Mexican Day of the Dead Celebration. Her clotted, sunburnt orange flowers are like the Aztec marigolds that dot household altars and her grinning skeletons could be brethren to the calaca masks and calavera sugar skulls that assist in commemorating the spiritual journey.
Olsen uses fresh primed and stretched canvases as palettes to mix her paints on, only to then redeploy these same colored surfaces as textural grounds with which to begin a new work. Lying beneath diaphanous scrims of overpainting, where subjects have been redrawn and reworked, these grounds contribute to the layered, camouflaged environments of the paintings. In “Thru the Vines” (2018), the odd, sideways leering and surprising hide-and-seek appearance of a skeleton among the foliage evoke James Ensor’s lively, charismatic skeletons. Similarly, “Death and the Maiden” (2018), a high point of the exhibition, is a frothy mix of piggy pink flesh and bones arranged in a rhythmic, bobbing wave pattern, like skulls stacked in an ossuary.
The exhibition also includes a number of blue paintings with voluptuous female nudes enveloped in water or the deep indigos and cobalt of nightfall; the ebb, flow, and reverberation of waves conceal and reveal the figure. “Bluets (After Maggie Nelson)” (2018) offers a clue to the source material and sheds light on Olsen’s practice of overlapping subjects whether physical, autobiographical, or mythological.
Rather than working from life, one could say, Olsen works after life. She paints people, places, and things as she remembers them, at times referencing actual photos and her imagination while interjecting a tug of war between Eros and Thanatos into the mix. If the Dance of Death of the medieval period spoke to horrors like the bubonic plague as a mass killer, today it takes on new resonance with global warming, nuclear war, and Anthropocene extinction. Olsen’s paintings, by turn, suggest an acceptance and invigoration of one’s place in the universe, shaking off the dead skin of the past in order to be renewed as an earth goddess.