Emilia Olsen: Visions of paint and flesh

Emilia Olsen, Sorrow Is Not My Name (After Ross Gay), 2018, oil on canvas, 28 × 22 inches

Contributed by Katie Hector / Emilia Olsen’s paintings, on view in “There is Another Sky” at Arts + Leisure through May 12,  spark curiosity. Channeling vulnerability through evocative subject matter, the artist leads viewers down a rabbit hole in pursuit of a mysterious female figure who meanders in and out of the picture plane. The woman, her face perpetually obscured by swaths of long dark hair, can be found in a field of wildflowers, resting on a mound of grass, entangled in a of knot of snakes, or curled into a fetal position on the shower floor. Rounded stylized form conjures febrile flesh both communing in and consumed by nature.

Emilia Olsen, Marigolds, 2019; caulk, gesso, oil on panel; 9 × 7 1/2 inches

Cadmium Red, Radiant Magenta, Prussian Blue, and Viridian Green squeezed directly from the tube mingle on the surface of Olsen’s canvases to create blocks of saturated color, combined with subtle tonal rendering. High resolution images have a tendency to flatten these paintings, which, when viewed in person, are revealed as dense thatches of brushstrokes carving through cake-like layers of paint. A key example of Olsen’s paint handling can be seen in Marigolds, a small-scale piece that depicts a smirking skull resting in a wreath of fiery flora. Her brushstrokes flicker through impasto paint layered above the panel’s surface. Content and form are united in pieces like Mornings and Untitled (Shadows), in which supple skin achieves a physicality that invites viewers to span a conceptual gap between paint and flesh.

Elimia Olsen, Morninggs, 2018, oil and R+F sticks on canvas, 24 x 20 inches
Emilia Olsen, Untited (Shadows), 2019, oil on canvas, 10 x 8 inches

As she oscillates between real-world scenarios and dreamlike environments, moons, snakes, skulls, and flowers seem to comfort and haunt the figure. Olsen has amassed a cache of iconography that she revisits to describe or channel various moments in her personal life. The newest addition to her repertoire is an image of a gorgon who makes an appearance as the subject in Medusa, featuring a coiffure of green coiled serpents depicted from behind. 

Emilia Olsen, Medusa, 2019, oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches

Olsen considers these mythological women historically misunderstood. “In my version the gorgon is still vulnerable,” she says. Safety resides once more in the subject’s anonymity as viewers are offered, in lieu of a face, a live tress of snakes that surround and protect their keeper. For Olsen, it seems that the body serves as an allegorical vehicle through which to approach ideas about life, death, and existentialism.

There is Another Sky,” Arts + Leisure, 1571 Lexington Avenue, UES, New York, NY. Through May 12, 2019.

About the author: About the author: Katie Hector is an artist, independent curator, and writer living and working in New York City. She co-directs The Royal Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

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Two Coats of Paint is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. To use content beyond the scope of this license, permission is required.

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