Saturday, July 9, 2011

Mike Olin

This week I visited with Mike Olin in Bushwick, where he has been painting for the past twelve years. I am lucky enough to visit with Olin quite often, but it was a whole different thing to sit with him and learn (by watching as much as talking) how he makes and approaches his work. His space is something else: loads of suculants reminding him of San Diego where he grew up, huge windows opening to the west, plenty of summer sunlight filling the space, and a serene sense of calm and pleasure in the attitude he holds towards his practice and his life.

Mike: They were painted at different times of the year and looking back you can kind of tell...I've enjoyed how repeating an image makes influences like that more noticeable.

Olin's most current body of work, which he titles "Human Highway," consists primarily of many duplications of a very small image he found in A Field Guide to Early Man, a science textbook on paleontology from 1987. His fascination with this illustration and the ideas that he has drawn from it have compelled him to make work ranging from small drawings to very large paintings. The image itself is of a leopard preying on a particular early man, Australopithecus Robustus to be exact. The leopard has taken his prey up a tree and has enveloped the human's head in his mouth. It was fascinating to hear Olin describe the picture to me. He kept saying how tender it was, how peaceful. At first viewing, it seems quite different -- pretty brutal, actually. However, after spending time around the numerous renditions of the same image, and studying it for my drawings, I began to see what he meant. This scenario, which existed before the pressures of any kind of society, shows the basic needs of human and animal life. There is a comfort in knowing we weren't always at the top of the food chain; we gave and received as equals at one time, truly being one with earth. It is thoughtful and generous of Olin to put this idea forward, presenting it with innocence and subtlety. This is a topic we should all keep at the forefront of our minds.

Olin uses copper-plated tacks when attaching his canvasses. He demonstrated this and let me have a try. Satisfying! He then puts multiple layers of gesso on the surface to get it just right. I appreciated his sincerity in emphasizing this. His work has a tactile and visceral quality that is apparent from the use of these processes.

Mike: I try to overlap ways of seeing when making the paintings, offering the viewer many ways to approach it.

Mike also begins each painting by placing what he calls "trash" on the canvas haphazardly. He then goes back and attaches it with gesso. One type of debris he uses time and time again is a handful of mustard seeds. He told me that these seeds suggest spirituality, as they appear significantly in many religions.

What a fabulous visit. Mike and I spent a relaxing studio day together. It was also in celebration of school ending for the summer (Olin is a middle school art teacher in the Bronx and a damn good one). We shared a tall boy of Sixpoint and talked over our summer plans. Both Mike's spirit and his artwork are a true delight. To check out more go to He is also in a group show opening Friday September 16th at Edward Thorp Gallery called "Assembly", be sure to check it out!

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