MODERN PAINTERS   by: Christopher Ho   April 1, 2006   
Modern Painters
International Arts and Culture
April 2006

While the trappings of a mid-century America are certainly present in
Erwin Olaf's photographs- orange kitchen counters, wood-framed
blackboards and mattresses so thin that they are uncomfortable to look
at - the photographer's models betray their con temporariness. The
cheerleaders in The Gym [2004] are slim even by today's standards,
and the boxers in The Boxing School [2005] a little excessively gym-
buffed. Other details, too, recall the commercial sector in which
Olaf's work is well-known. In The Boxing School, the shorts could be
from a Y3 or Prada spread, and in The Classroom [2005], the v-neck's
fashionably high armholes and trim cut earmarks it as a retro- hip
rather than retrospective proper.

But atmosphere, not accuracy, is the point here, and Olaf excels at
evocative images. His photographs are striking not so much because
they seamlessly and seemingly effortlessly conflate commercial
photography and high art [ an exhausted debate in any case], or even
because they successfully deploy tricks from product photography to
add visual interest [most notably in the play scale in works like The
Kitchen, 2005]. They are striking for their open- endedness.
Consider The Boardroom [2004], where the relationship between older
boss and younger secretary is palpable, if ambiguous, and The Hallway
[2005], in which details- the flowers in the woman's hand, an
umbrella- add up to an inconclusive narrative. it is as if the
protagonists of these scenes, thrown together by the photographer and
linked by assorted props, are unsure about their roles.

Some strategies Olaf uses to overcome the limitations of the
photographic print depicting door left ajar [The Bedroom, 2004] and
having two people face outward, like the graphic novelist's convention
of showing shot and reaction shot in the same frame [Hairdresser, 2004
and The Dancing School, 2005]. The first accords greater spatial
dimension and the second provides a sense of temporal distention.
Finally, there is the motif of a stormy night, glimpsed through
windows, that appears in almost all the photographs. At first,
seemingly, an awkward moment in an otherwise masterful displace of
digital manipulation [it is obviously Photoshopped], this persistent,
inconsistent, thematic cliché functions, in the final analysis, as an
easy entry point for the viewer to step into a world that, if not
quite accurately mid-century America, is certainly not our own.


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