by Mikko Lautamo
In computer programming there’s something called a “magic number.” It’s a tiny piece of information embedded in a file that indicates its contents. Penny Olson, a photographer who takes highly reduced images of everyday objects and reprocesses them into luminescent, plaid prints, appears to be searching for a similar kind of identifier when she strips photographs down to their digital essences. What remains in the print is a ghost, an afterimage with the aura but not the specificity of the source.
Olson has been sampling, reducing and expanding the pixels of photographs since 2007. Whether shooting pictures of her garden or her gallery, the results are the same: grids resembling out-of-focusfabric patterns. Her new work, From the Floor, adds a conceptual wrinkle to this otherwise reductive process by using the gallery floor as her source. The result is a hybrid installation that makes use of the light of the location to realize work on the wall.
Concrete 4012, one of three prints on view,is situated near a large window that casts bluish daylight on the floor and on the piece. To the right and above are gallery lights that cast a yellow-white light. The piece reflects this subtle gradation from blue to beige to white exactly in line with the lights. The phenomenon is somewhat akin to a Robert Irwin disc installation in that the print partially dissolves into the space around it. With her pixel-level manipulations, Olson has uncovered a digital DNA, a reusable “barcode” reference to the type of light present in the gallery at a particular place and time.
On an opposite wall, Concrete 3378 does something similar, but because the curtains are drawn, the light is amber-tinged. The gold-metallic paper and red rust lines on this print magnify the effect of the altered lighting, making it seem like the dusk to Concrete 4012’s dawn. Concrete 4005, the smallest of the three at 18 x 12 inches, looks like a tablecloth. There’s a loose connection here to Michelle Grabner, who uses iconic fabric patterns as a signifier for staid domesticity, but in this, the floor itself is the reference. (Clearly, there’s a pun lying in wait having to do with turning concrete into an abstraction, which I’ll resist.)
Concrete 3378’s rusty bleed and metallic gold push it toward the realm of a consumer product or classic car, but the main aesthetic evoked is that of the pale, understated grids of Agnes Martin. Like Martin, Olson proposes bare abstraction, free of discernible references. The difference is that she arrives at it by grinding a photo down into lines and hues. Olson’s stated goal is to explore how the computer “sees,” and to understand how her digital tools and processes alter an image. In this regard, she stands at the forefront of a group of digital and Internet-focused artists (Doug Rickard, Trevor Paglen, Penelope Umbrico and Douglas Coupland) who are attempting to discern what it means to represent the world in 1s and 0s.
In the meantime it's easy savor the sly humor of a body of work that portrays a gallery within a gallery. Machines make it possible, but the subtlety of it is something only humans can grasp.
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Penny Olson: “From the Floor” @ Chandra Cerrito Contemporary through May 26, 2016.
About the Author:
Mikko Lautamo is an artist living and working in Sacramento. His work uses programming to create never-repeating loops of digital animations based on social systems, biological entities and interactions. He teaches Electronic Art at Sac State and has exhibited work in Sacramento, Melbourne and online. His work can be viewed on Vimeo.