Saturday, January 22, 2005

The Big Picture 15

Daniel Olson is a mysterious fellow, and his latest exhibition, Dead End, is not making him any less enigmatic. And I’ve known him for years.
The Montreal-based multi-media artist has spent the last decade creating deeply personal yet markedly evasive, diary-like yet shy and withholding art that manipulates the core traditions of self portraiture.

Olson’s carefully layered acts of self representation ingeniously reverse the standard relationship between audience and self-depicting artist –that time worn dialogue between the viewer, who approaches a self portrait expecting to find an at least partially reliable representation by the artist of him or herself, and the artist who is expected to provide the reasonable facsimile – by refusing to affirm the validity of the self-portrait. Olson’s reluctant confessionals never say “this is me”, but ask, instead, “is this me?”.

How Olson does this is by burying himself in layers upon layers of borrowed imagery, creating a personalized hall of mirrors packed with reproductions of reproductions of reproductions. It’s almost as if Olson is creating pictorial mazes, with walls built around himself made not of literally obscuring imagery, of blurs, erasures, or pixelations, (he is always recognizable in his own works, face front), but of distorting references to multiple art historical antecedents and image reproduction technologies.

If this all sounds too egg-heady to bear, that’s my fault. Despite his fondness for submerging images of himself in everything from found photographs to twice and thrice-copied movie stills, for weaving himself into established visual narratives by everyone from Buster Keaton to Marcel Duchamp, Olson is, at heart, a clown.

“I see this work as playful,” Olson tell me over the phone before a long, careful pause, “… I guess I’m interested in the mutations that happen when you take an image and rework it over and over, especially one of yourself … hmmm … but, remember, that activity, photographing photographs, printing a laser print of a scan of a reproduction of a photograph, is also a framing device.”


“Framing device … umm … I guess .. it’s a process of zeroing in on something, a way to highlight an image by making selections and directing the viewer’s attention to details, but not too forcefully. Photography is grabbing something from the outside world and freezing it. And there’s something inherently playful about that, because it’s a foolish attempt to stop time.”
If, then, making pictures of oneself by constantly culling and reworking core imagery is a kind of mask game, a hide and seek between the artist and an image of the artist, how does Olson know when the game is over?

“Sometimes it’s an intuitive response to a detail that I’ve been drawn too that makes me focus, but sometimes I reproduce things over and over to create distortions, which is I guess the playful aspect, to see what happens when you make a mess.”

Dead End is punctuated by two striking, and strikingly different video projections: one of Olson re-enacting Duchamp’s famous photograph of a round table full of Duchamps, the other of Olson standing in front of a projected photograph of himself as a small boy. Somewhere in between the stances the videos represent - Olson as public artist engaged in in-house art games and Olson as a private person exploring his relationship to his personal past – lies the key to Olson’s work, which has always been about the tension between public and private, between an artist’s need to explore his curiousities in an open forum and Olson’s distrust of mawkish self celebration.

“Some of my work is a way for me to think about my past and my family, to wonder where I came from, where I’m going … but I’d also say that the Duchamp piece, even though it’s loaded with art history connotations, is in a way a kind of family piece too, as Duchamp is kind of my artistic grandfather (and everybody else’s).”

“We make art to figure out where we stand in the world, and this is my way of doing it. But, to be less serious, I have to admit it’s funny, it’s silly to project an image of yourself as a child onto your body … well, a restrained sort of silly.”

A restrained sort of silly. Now he tells me, after I scratched all the hair off the top of my head.


For a more didactic experience (I mean that in a good way), slip between the folds of Diyan Achjadi’s politically charged textile works on display at Open Studio.

Sampling from such diverse visual sources as Chinese Cultural Revolution propaganda art, 1950’s school readers, camouflage prints and batik dyeing, Achjadi creates a kind of picture book in banners, telling the story of a young girl trying to survive a military conflict.

The content of the banners is decidedly not pretty. We see the heroine holding a machine gun in her tiny lap, learning how to use a gas mask, and eventually being overwhelmed, perhaps killed, by a giant soldier. The look of the banners, however, is very pretty indeed.

Saturated in glossy pinks, cookie sprinkle reds and hot fuchsias, these digitally-printed nightmares border on the cruelly parodic – which is why they work so well. Achjadi’s cheery war scenes confront the trivialization, indeed the prettifying, of military conflict by presenting a victim’s tale in the same sanitized, digestible and childish way that mass media cleans up “good wars” for public consumption.

If Open Studio re-titles the show Dora The Explorer Goes To Iraq, maybe a few school buses will show up for a tour.

Finally, I can’t help putting my five cents in on the “Prince Harry The Nazi” scandal.

Why anyone cares what these inbred twits do on their off-time is beyond me, but what does fascinate me about the scandal is how it is wholly based on a single visual, on one hastily taken photo of a dumb kid wearing a swastika.

What that tells us, all inane Royal Family dramedies aside, is that decades after the Nazi horror even a costume swastika has the power to horrify and outrage citizens around the globe. Good. Education about the Holocaust and the evils of fascism is working.

Pity the Buckingham Palace library doesn’t have any history books.

Daniel Olson
Dead End
Gallery TPW 80 Spadina Ave. Suite 310.
Until February 19.

Diyan Achjadi
See Girl
Open Studio Gallery 401 Richmond Street, Suite 104
Until January 29