LOS ANGELES — Henrik Olesen’s “Press Release: Head of a Hostage/L’Homme ouvert” is easy to overlook. It is, however, an essential starting point to Olesen’s exhibition, Hey Restless!, at Gaga & Reena Spaulings Fine Art (all works 2021).
Playing on an actual press release, the artwork consists of four prints bearing the titles and distorted reproductions of paintings by French Art Informel artist Jean Fautrier, including Fautrier’s Hostage series, while the exhibition’s press release and other works refer to writings by Georges Bataille and philosopher Catherine Malabou’s theory of cerebral plasticity. The placement of “Press Release: Head of a Hostage” — across a wall by a desk in the gallery’s front room — lends it an inconspicuousness compared to the more assertive works near it.
Fautrier produced his Hostage paintings and sculptures between 1943 and ’45, while living in a psychiatric hospital outside of Paris, near a forest where Nazis tortured and executed prisoners. He couldn’t see the victims but he could hear their screams. His presence pervades the show, in the rough or viscous textures of Olesen’s paintings, which approximate Fautrier’s heavily worked surfaces, and in the orientation and titles of many works, which allude to the human body and bodily processes. (In addition to the set of prints, the painting “Head of a Hostage” directly cites Fautrier.)
In the gallery’s front room, a row of empty, diorama-like wood boxes, all with “belly” in the title, are installed at Olesen’s torso height. Oil paintings (all slightly under 1 1/2 by 2 feet) fill the larger main gallery, some paired with unplugged power cords that run from the top of the canvas to the floor, loosely demarcating the space of a human body.
Malabou’s “plasticity,” roughly defined as the mutability of the mind, relates to plasticity in art. Neurological connections can be created or destroyed through experiences or brain injuries; the latter form the basis of “destructive plasticity,” in which entire personalities can change.
In the painting “Hey Plasticity,” a grayish-white shape resembling a cloud, or a brain, hovers in the upper half of a white canvas muddied by smudges of gel and acrylic paste; the title is printed in black marker at the top and a white power cord runs parallel to the painting’s left edge.
Three other canvases share the neutral palette of “Hey Plasticity”: “Rotten Sun (big),” “Rotten Sun (small),” and “Hey Formless!” — references to Bataille’s essays “Rotten Sun” (1930), an homage to Picasso, and “L’informe” (“Formless,” 1929). The actual text of the essay “Rotten Sun” makes an appearance in the exhibition, its first page printed on the inside of “Belly (screws, keyboard, brushes, screwdriver).”
In “Rotten Sun,” Bataille associates modern painting with “the elaboration or decomposition of forms.” If academic painting represents the “serenity and spiritual elevation” of the sun that illuminates, modern art corresponds to staring directly at the sun: “[A] certain madness is implied,” he writes; “it is no longer production that appears in light, but refuse or combustion […].”
The formal similarities among these four Olesen paintings connect Malabou and Bataille via a dialectic of creation and destruction that motivates art as well as psychical and physical processes.
In the show’s press release, Olesen describes the Belly sculptures as “empty stomachs digesting their two-dimensional contents.” Their identical shapes align notions of conformity and rigidity — the opposite of plasticity — with the body’s production of waste. Images of laundry detergent printed on some boxes and black slashes across the text of “Rotten Sun” and, in another box, one on metamorphosis by Michel Leiris, slip between comic takes on cleansing, waste, or digestion (Bataille-induced indigestion) and allusions to censorship and obscenity laws. (Olesen’s 2001 show Lack of Information at Kunstverein Braunschweig in Germany addressed the criminalization of homosexuality through “sodomy” laws.) Other printed images — paintbrushes, keyboards, screws — signify creation; the press release calls them “images of the tools of their making.”
Olesen finds in the dialectic of destruction and creation an unsettling ambivalence between the sensual pleasure of art making and the violent source material, for Fautrier and, in turn, for him. He seems to revel in colors and textures, in materiality and plasticity, in all that is formless, fluid, and uncontained. The cheery bubblegum pink of “I Am Formless” complements its lime green cord; its title, written on a strip of masking tape near the top, imbues the work with subjectivity.
To the left of “I Am Formless,” the colorful “Hey Restless! (blue),” with its rich, enveloping sea of aqua and its neon orange cord, hails both the viewer and its pendant piece across the room, “Hey Restless! (orange).” Even some of the minimalist boxes are enlivened by vibrant reds and blues.
The association of Fautrier, Bataille, and Malabou hints at a subtext in which creation and destruction invade the real world through the violent transgression of bodily limits: the doomed prisoners who inspired Fautrier’s artworks; Malabou’s study of personalities irrevocably changed by neurological damage; the “decomposition of forms” in modern art for Bataille.
Fautrier, in particular, casts a shadow of real violence across the exhibition, correlating the materiality of Olesen’s paintings with the fragile materiality of the body. “Intestine (blue, red),” and “Intestine (black, brown)” cite Fautrier’s “The Open Man (The Autopsy)” (1928–29), pictured in “Press Release: Head of a Hostage.” Fautrier’s portrait — reminiscent in its dim ambiance to Rembrandt’s anatomy paintings — portrays a nude corpse whose open torso reveals his intestines. Faint paint swirls in Olesen’s works mimic the snaking, organic shape.
A power cord hanging between “Intestine (blue, red)” and “Intestine (black, brown),” partially painted bright green, suggest both the intestines and the body’s life force, while the pulsating chromostereopsis of the colors in “Intestine (blue, red)” seems to animate the canvas. In the painting’s upper left quadrant, a searing red daub ruptures the surface like blood pooling around an incision in the skin.
On the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles’s website, the text accompanying Fautrier’s abstract painting “Dépouille” (1945), from the Hostage series, notes that “Fautrier’s strategy was to indicate violence in his handling of materials, rather than through traditional figurative means.” The painting’s texture, more than its amoebic central form, invokes the “brutalization of bodies.”
Where Fautrier’s surfaces evoke violence, hints of authoritarianism hide in Olesen’s forms and modes of display — his unyielding “belly” boxes; the streamlined geometry of his frames. The exposed hardware fastening the paintings to the wall adds a banal but significant sense of brutality.
For much of his career, Olesen has confronted both psychological and physical violence, perpetrated by power structures against non-normative, particularly homosexual, bodies. Earlier works, such as his 2013 exhibition Hysterical Men at Galerie Buchholz in Berlin and his 2008 work “Some Faggy Gestures,” modeled on Aby’s Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, examined the history and pathologizing of queerness.
Olesen’s emphasis on the body indicates that power structures are not abstract entities but rather politicians, military, and any number of individuals beholden to and replicating these structures, frequently through violence. The visual exuberance of “I Am Formless!” is tempered by its reference to Bataille’s one-paragraph essay, “L’Informe,” in which he writes, “What it [the word formless] designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm.”
Bataille aligned formlessness with debasement, which he celebrated as transgressive. This mode of transgression is just a step away from that of what he calls “heterogeneity” in his political essay “The Psychological Structure of Fascism” (1933). “Heterogeneous reality is that of a force or shock,” he writes. It is what the State expels in order to maintain its social order. In the context of a modern democracy (and perhaps particularly America’s enfeebled democracy), it implies anyone whose nonconformity threatens the dominant mechanisms of power.
More than one reviewer has commented on Olesen’s hermetic or niche references. Hey Restless!, however, contains enough information, between the artworks, titles, and press release, to include any viewer (with the help of a few internet searches). But the hermeticism has performative and political dimensions as well.
Having knowledge or information withheld is a form of control that enables oppression — Lack of Information get its title from a study that cites “lack of information” as one among many factors contributing to homophobic violence. Olesen invokes the experience of exclusion, which contributes, on one hand, to misinformation that leads to bigotry and violence and, on the other hand, to a lack of resources that leads to vulnerability. His staging turns the dynamic on its head by directing it toward empathy.
If Olesen’s sources point to anything positive, it’s that destruction can inspire a kind of self-creation. Without minimizing the devastating effects of neurological damage, Malabou proposes that the annihilation of form is not necessarily a loss. In The New Wounded (2007) she writes, “The fact that the transformation of self by a wound can be at once destructive and transfiguring is the great lesson of contemporary neurology. It is also its political message.”
Henrik Olesen: Hey Restless! continues at Gaga & Reena Spaulings (2228 West 7th Street, 2nd Floor, Los Angeles, California) through April 24.