Henrik Olesen’s show at Galerie Buchholz, Cologne, left me confused. But in a good way. It made me question the current state of artistic practice. A lot of the artworks in the show are well done and executed. You feel comfortable, you know you are in good hands – and the artist knows that. And he knows that you know. So the two of you pass by each other. A little stand offish in the great historic hallways of arts great race to the pinnacle. Or down the drain. Nodding shortly. 6 feet apart. Yet contemporary. It’s this meta-meta figure that Olesen’s exhibition seems to be built upon.
But I’m not going to pretend that I am amazed by this figure. However it made the exhibition better than expected – though its use of referentiality drags the show down for me. This does not mean that I disagree with the general idea that artworks always relate to something. Because, of course, they do. They appear in frames of reference. Contexts matter.
What I mean is that Olesen’s references feel forced. The exhibition consists of an abstract painting cycle referencing organs and entrails, hanging next to manipulated power cords. Another room called Auflösung (Resolution, all works 2020) shows dismembered and mutilated laptop keyboard silicones on card stock without characters. The first room features an index on a wall next to a painting with a black shimmering outline called Treasure Island. According to a bare boned exhibition text, which lists the references, the power cords and plugs relate to ideas of circulatory systems and the paintings were developed in a repeated process of applying layers, scratching things off and reattaching them. These layered meanings, however, did not translate to the artworks. It rather felt like they insist on saying something but actually say nothing. A simple additional layering on the work to justify its own existence. A dead end.
Despite the indication of several layers of meaning within the text and a reference to Jeanne Fautrier’s painting L’homme ouvert (1928), this work does not seem to make any observations or statements, but rather seems to allude to our favorite discussion on painting and its status(es), traditions and futures. There’s nothing wrong with that. You just don’t need a three-story building to train for a marathon. More generally, it seems off to me to position a work through references that indicate a political or systemic analysis in order to conceptualise it within a deeper level of painting vs. painting or painting after painting or painting during painting. More metaphorically, it seems off to me to claim arrival at the summit of Kilimanjaro after climbing the three stories of your apartment building – because we know in these moments most of us are surrounded by hot air.
Maybe this relates to a deeper problem that I have always faced within my own work. Because, let’s face it, most exhibition reviews are more about the author’s concerns than the actual content of the work. But with the start of the depressing 2020s, I can no longer relate to another exhibition about painting’s state of perpetual digestion and redigestion. There’s no more need to reference referentiality to reference referentialities. „To designate a hell is not to tell us anything about how to extract people from that hell, how to moderate hell’s flames“, writes Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). To fulfill my review quota of one intellectual reference. Sometimes references stay references. A finger simply pointing at something. A gesture which has accompanied my own work and has dragged it down.
Maybe I fell for this race to referentiality by taking the accompanying text too seriously; there are also light-hearted aspects of Olesen’s work, that are playful and even redeeming. Maybe I should not frame the paintings as the centre piece of the work as the entire show seems to be conceptualised around ideas of re- and dissolution with the Auflösung. It probably wouldn’t harm to look more closely at the muted keyboards staring at me in silence. An open invitation to question more pasts, more digestions and more manifestos. Maybe there is actual kinship hidden in this work by Olesen. Just not in my expected way of recognising it. Which is why we just nod shortly while passing one another as we slide down the gutter. I’m just not sure whether I’m facing up or down.
Henrik Olesen – ab 22. Mai 2020 22 May – 15 August 2020