Categorized | Reviews

David Olivant @ CSU Stanislaus

Target Practice , 2014, multi media on panel, 23 x 29"
Let’s start with a well-known quote from Michel Foucault’s 1966 book The Order of Things: “In any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one 'episteme' that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in theory or silently invested in a practice.” Amidst the long night of the post-theoretical soul, one wonders if this assertion still rings true—after all, are we not now fully invested in the post-historical idea that all pasts are simultaneously present as fragments of the mashed-up zeitgeist-of-no-zeitgeist called the forever now? And if so, do we have any recourse but to admit that the heterologous mash-up is now the best representation of our current episteme? The affirmative answer to this question gains much support from the art of the past five decades, which has taken the innovations of Dada collage practices in many bold directions ranging from Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton’s collaged satires of 1950s American consumer culture to Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines and on to Jess’s Paste-Ups, all of which set the stage for Pop Art which in turn set the stage for most of what we would now call post-Modernist visual art. The earmarks of the mash-up esthetic are representational strategies that fulfill the definition of being thick descriptions (to borrow a term coined by Gilbert Ryle) that emphasized a way of accounting for the digressive, the layered and the polyvalent, each and all a plea for a durable-yet-flexible taxonomy that can reframe itself as “meaning” across multiple registers of experience. It is nice work when you get it, and get it we do in David Olivant’s series of recent mixed media works presented at CSU Stanislaus’ Art Space on Main in downtown Turlock.
Black as the Ace of Spades, multi-media on panel, 26 x 16"

Four of the 21works on view here are freestanding, and only two of these invite the viewer to fully engage them in the round. The remaining 17 hang on the wall, but in most cases seem to want to come off of it, or failing that, to at least jump past the confines of the pictorial rectangle. Only on a few occasions do we see any dimension greater than 30 inches, meaning that, for all of their moments of slap-happy chaos and material rambunction, Olivant’s pieces are best understood as meditations on the state of visual intimacy, albeit one subjected toabsurd disruptions. As an example, take the piece titled Target Practice. Its material basis is a full sized dart board attached to a piece of salvaged plywood, upon which are painted a crouching male figure holding a rifle and two other floating female figures, each a reclining nude. At the right is an additional female figure made of glazed (or painted) ceramic, seeming to be tending a wound while also intruding into the space occupied by the smirking gunman. To the left one sees a small cascade of tiny rubber tires mounted on a measuring device. At the most obvious level of denotation, we see that the tableaux draws equivalencies between eroticism and violence, but the connotations are richer than that, insofar as the male figure seems to convey ambivalence rather than malice. 

In Black as the Ace of Spades, we see a visual pun set up between a well-used flat nosed shovel and the eponymous playing card affixed to its face, all rising high above a grimacing female figure made of painted ceramic. Another element in the work is a model airplane that is positioned as if it were taking a steep nosedive, annotating two possibilities: a prophesy of imminent doom for the figure, or doom for her rejected suitor represented by the careening airplane.
In Walking the Keys a pair of black feet steps in front of the implied picture plane as if walking a plank that is cantilevered forward atop a protruding lattice of plywood. Above this space to the right is a painting of a bearded male face whose oversight is distracted by a cheek kiss from a blue female figure, while below his position we see other figures, one positioned on a capsized rowboat. The upper male figure seems to look out toward the viewer, seeming to want to either issue a taunt, or perhaps invite approval of his meting out of absurd justice. As is the case in all of Olivant’s works presented here, the painting of the figures (as well as the modeling of those made from clay) bespeak a kind of deft sense of abbreviation that sits somewhere between classical modeling and conventional cartooning, making them comparable to the figures painted by Robert Colescott or R.B. Kitaj—only here, they are players in much more complicated narrative dramas that are open to a far greater number of interpretations.
Walking the Keys, 2013, multi media on panel, 23 x 29"

If you were to read what I have written in the above paragraphs without seeing the exhibition, you could be forgiven if you assumed that Olivant works squarely within the familiar and pervasive modality of Bay Area art making that was dubbed Funk by Peter Selz in 1967. There is some truth to that assumption, but not nearly as much as many might expect. More interesting are the ways that Olivant’s work extends and deviates from the Funk tradition, adding new elements and incorporating and recalibrating familiar influences. The results are works that are more seductive and poetic than the typical Funk fare, partly so because of their unabashed and unambivalent embrace of the Surrealist tradition of the object trove poetique, and partly because of their wildly elaborated, Rube Goldbergian zaniness that harks back to the older work of Joseph Cornell. Okay, zany may not be the right word, because it signifies the wrong kind of comedy insofar as Olivant’s work is concerned. The right kind of comedy is in fact tragi-comedy, and its achievement lies within a canny balancing of charm, pathos and absurdity that uses figurative fragments to slyly suggest how each of these aspects is a function of the others. This balance is as much a function of form as it is of what is normally called either content or signification, because the most important formal issue that Olivant’s work addresses is the one that stage manages relations between multiple modes of particularity seeking salvation from a runaway complexity that is nothing if not indifferent to human folly.


David Olivant: “Heteroglyphs” @ California State University, Stanislaus, Art Space on Main, through March 1, 2015
About the Author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward.  Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America.  His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010).  To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak's December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke Ass Stuart's Goddamn Website.


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