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Craig Olson, “Rain Maker” (2013), pigment and urethane on clayboard, 12 x 16 x 1 in (all images courtesy the artist)

Craig Olson’s exhibition Angels and Demons at Play opens today at John Davis Gallery in Hudson, New York. Angels and Demons, along with his October 2012 exhibition at Janet Kurnatowski, signals the shift in Olson’s work away from a more formal abstract painting toward a mercurial approach that hovers between categories and defies explanation.

This particular transition in Olson’s work is noteworthy.

Our methods of categorization in painting are no longer suitable to our state of affairs. By way of evidence, I offer you this: even casualist, slacker and abject painting have come to seem hopelessly affected as methods of improving dialogue — not just between painters but between painting and its own history. Mere materiality — the bequest of our Minimalist forebears — doesn’t seem like enough of a foundation for us to build on either.

Painting is always in dialogue with its history and shall always be judged, ultimately, in relationship to it. A knowing nod and crooked grin will shield little against its fangs. The New York School had bravura. The generation preceding them had social justice. We have irony. But it just isn’t enough anymore, if it ever was. To embody history and integrate it, now that is something to chew on. That is not a pose. It is an experience. Painting doesn’t advance. The idea of advancement is a mere coping mechanism. Painting changes.

Angels and Demons at Play offers us another opportunity to explore the assumptions underlying our painting conversation and to broaden the base on which our understanding rests. In order to do this, sometimes one must rebuild from the foundations.

As in the previous exchange I did with Peter Acheson, I will put questions to Olson whose responses will be in italics. I will follow up with a comment and another question.

1. Is the trickster paradigm for painting now on the ascendency? Is it true that we are abandoning the heroic paradigm for painting?

It’s true for me. I couldn’t speak to anything larger than that. There are others, you see them, you know them. Sometimes you can tell just by looking at someone. Trickster and Hero have been linked from the beginning, they need each other. They represent a single cosmic force, polarized, split, and turned against itself in mutual portions. Antagonistic yet cooperative. Today, the hero paradigm is everywhere; it’s all pervasive in our culture, from U.S. foreign policy to Hollywood’s obsession with super heroes. Its major concerns are exploitation and expansion, all filtered through the monocular lens of global capital. Trickster sees in kaleidoscopes, contradictory realities existing side by side. He slips in and out of the gaps between worlds. Hero can’t stand this, he demands order and control. More specifically, the hero-painter is a problem solver. Each painting is a “problem” to be “solved,” or “resolved,” and so the heroic task begins. Trickster-painter exists in a state of imaginative play, creative chaos. There is nothing to be solved because there isn’t a problem. Not in the painting anyway. The problem exists in trying to fence the activity in, whether that fence is casualist, formalist, or whatever. Once hero establishes that boundary, trickster can’t help but transgress it.

Craig Olson, “Ode to Demons” (2013), acrylic, pigment, and urethane on wood, 29 x 9 1/4 x 1/2 in (click to enlarge)

I might go you one further. What if our culture’s monomaniacal focus on accomplishment and excellence in the heroic vein is leading us to the worst kind of ruin?  Here’s James Hillman:

Hercules (Hero) in Hades (the dark underworld of dreams where Hermes (Trickster) is a peaceful sojourner) shows us that iconoclasm is the first move of murder. Of course our culture must have the constraint of the Sixth Commandment (forbidding killing), for the murderous possibility is already entailed in the Second (forbidding imaging). If we do not recognize the divine power in images, then what can restrain the ego’s literalism but moral prohibitions? Without metaphorical understanding, everything is only what it is and must be met on the simplest, most direct level.

What if Hero, whom we worship, is ultimately against nuance of meaning as veiled in metaphor? We as a culture have decided we can’t deal with the messiness that accompanies the darker side of our nature and have therefore decided to suppress such areas altogether. The violence that this suppression entails will find expression somewhere.

2. How does surrealism figure into this?

Well, I think Surrealism, coming out of Dadaist activity, was the first time so called civilized or modern Europeans made an effort to get outside of the dominant oppressive ideologies of the time  —  excessive rational thought, the industrial revolution and its war machine, for example. The importance of their work shouldn’t be underestimated. Psychologically, they constitute a major shift away from Freud’s fantasies of developmental psychology and toward Jung’s explorations of the shadowy world of archetypes. Reaching back into the alchemical past and beyond, into the shamanic roots of Neolithic Europe. This creative activity, practiced by an international community of artists, stood in stark contrast to the divisive political violence and desecration of the world wars. Evidence of their radicalism rests in the fact that they were hated and ridiculed by fascists, communists, and capitalists alike. What they discovered, or rediscovered, was that the imagination has a free and spontaneous life of its own, that it can be trusted. This is more basic and revolutionary than any political ideology that justifies the murdering of human beings and the destruction of natural environments in the name of historical necessity or Reason or Opportunity. This is as true now as it ever was, perhaps more so, who knows? To participate creatively in this tradition, to drink from the fur lined tea-cup as it were, can be seen as a continuation of the ‘third way.’ The Surrealists were and are descendants of a much older order of resistance to organized power. Traces of this ‘third way’ can be found all throughout history with its emphasis on community, love, and freedom; from Kabbalistic Judaism and primitive Christianity to the alchemical heresies of the middle-ages, Islamic Sufism, ancient Chinese Taoism, the Beat poets, through to the Green Hermeticists of today.

Craig Olson, “Correspondences” (2013), acrylic, pigment, & urethane on wood, 32 1/2 x 12 x 3/4 in (click to enlarge)

The Surrealists were ahead of their time. Critical reaction to their bombast was predictable. But lets look beyond that. They were a release-valve. The Dadaists and Surrealists saw that the pressures in their cultures were building to an uncontrollable level. They knew that if the culture didn’t find healthy ways to express this, it would result in violence. Of course it did. They failed, but it doesn’t change the nobility of their cause.

3. Isn’t it possible to look at the regular outbursts of violence emanating from within our own culture as evidence that a similar situation of a more internal nature is upon us?  Shouldn’t we take action against this? Who are the models we can follow now and where can we look to find the language we seek?

The paintings of Hieronymous Bosch and the poetry of William Blake are a good start. I think your personal idols and your language are discovered through digging around in the compost heap of history. Being curious. Paying attention. Suddenly a path in the forest unfolds. You follow it. If you’re lucky you’ll come to a clearing which others have stumbled into and you can exchange stories. In America we get it through Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, through to, again, the Beat poets, William Burroughs, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Gary Snyder. There are so many others. Peter Lamborn Wilson, Harry Smith, Lorine Niedecker, and James Hillman are major figures for me. As I see it, it’s all part of a great Underground calling us to reconsider the nature of the human individual, and our place within a living universe. It’s interesting because it’s not an intellectual movement, but a creative one, staking out a way of life writing poems and painting pictures, making mistakes, and getting lost, but finding no place for apathy or despair even when it seems like everything is against you. This is a real responsibility for artists to face up to.

Craig Olson, “The Visitor Speaks” (2013)acrylic, urethane, and pigment on wood, 24 x 6 x 1/2 in

Ahhhh. It seems that you put forth a genuine alternative here: Bataille’s potlatch. Instead of every individual as a supplicant at the table of the master, each is made the bearer of an individual history, their offering they carry through the forest with them. Upon meeting, travellers sit, break bread, and talk. The value of what they have to offer is established by what they have to say.

4. Where can we find this? Here in Bushwick, the Puerto Rican day parade has way more life blood in it than does Bushwick Open Studios. Where is our Bacchanal? Our potlach?

It’s wherever you make it. For you and me, it’s with friends, secluded, usually somewhere in the Catskill mountains, but it can be anywhere. You can experience deep joy over a cup of coffee with a friend. From what I can tell, Bushwick Open Studios is very well organized, there really isn’t anything wild happening. Bacchus, or Dionysus, the god of the Bacchanal, exists in the forests outside the city walls. He comes from some place beyond the borders of the known and civilized, the ‘wild.’ For those who would seek to enter it, the wilderness can be a ferocious teacher, striping down, as Gary Snyder says, ‘the inexperienced or the careless.’ So, I don’t recommend it to everyone, nor would I want to experience it with just anyone. Stick with your tribe, know the terrain, be respectful of the plants and beasts, and humble yourself a little to the bigger picture. The angels are watching, but so are the demons. What are the lessons of these experiences? Will you allow them into your work, into your life? What mask will you use to face them, what will you offer them?

Craig Olson, “Faith to Arise” (2013), acrylic, pigment, urethane on wood, 32 x 10 x 1/2 in

This is akin to Hakim Bey’s concept of the TAZ. Or the collectivism apparent in certain recent activities by Bruce High Quality, Occupy Wall Street, or even Bard’s MFA program. In general, our culture has two possible methods of dealing with these sorts of occurrences: violence or integration. The former forcibly represses the outbreak, the latter neutralizes it through acculturation. I would say that what you are advocating in your work — the alternative implicit in the work I know of the artists mentioned — is the magical power of poetically evocative action. Beauty has a way of mesmerizing and it can be a cloak that hides a dagger. Or an arrow. Perhaps one of Cupid’s.

5. Are we at the end of our history? Or the beginning?

It feels like the beginning of the end.

Craig Olson, “The Hanger” (2013), acrylic, pigment, urethane, copper wire on wood, 20 x 6 1/2 x 5 1/2 in

Craig Olson: Angels and Demons at Play is on view at John Davis Gallery (362 1/2 Warren Street, Hudson, New York) through July 14.

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Ben La Rocco

Ben La Rocco is a painter living in Brooklyn.

One reply on “Artist Exchange: In Conversation with Craig Olson”

  1. Indeed, a mind-blowing work by Craig Olson. This art work is far
    beyond the definition of creativity. For art lovers like me; it just makes you
    want to sit down and wonder after a while with admiration.

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