Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Curtis Olson @ Phoenix Gallery

Green Hills Silo

Multi-media artist Curtis Olson has returned this month to Park City’s Phoenix Gallery with an eagerly anticipated exhibit entitled Earth and Sky. Olson has become a forceful draw for the gallery since he began showing there in 2003 as collectors have become fascinated with his contemporary evocations of the western landscape.

Though Olson has spent time on both coasts – he studied architecture at the University of North Carolina and pursued his career in that field in San Francisco – it is the West that is at the heart of his work. He grew up in the West — in Idaho and Montana — and it is to the West — in his current residence outside of Jackson, Wyoming — that he has returned. Olson moved to Wyoming over a decade ago, and it was there that his successful and award-winning career as an architect began, slowly, to give way to his life-long passion and current vocation as an artist. Since devoting himself fulltime to painting in 2002, Olson has been represented in numerous shows in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, and he has garnered a number of awards, including a Wyoming Arts Council Fellowship in 2004. Most recently, he was selected as the official artist for the 2006 Jackson Hole Film Festival.

Olson’s experience of the West is central to his work; but that doesn’t mean you’ll see traditional “western art” at the Phoenix Gallery exhibition. “I try to avoid playing up the Myth of the West,” Olson says, “though the art market really pushes one in that direction.” Olson’s hometown of Jackson is full of galleries propping up a myth of the West full of cowboys, Indians and majestic vistas. Olson, however, is interested in exploring and evoking in his paintings the West he has come to know in his many travels. “’The Landscape Memory’ pieces are based on my photographs of actual places,” Olson says of his group of works that feature quiet black and white images embedded in textured, abstract grounds. “I see this as much different than what traditional Western Landscape and Wildlife painters have done for hundreds of years, which is to create a fantasy world that does not exist.”

Olson’s photographs, taken from hours of scouring the landscape, are the visual anchors for his abstracted visual explorations. In his travels, he takes photographs of iconographic images of the West. Often these are lonely views: old barns, a lonely tree, abandoned farming equipment. While he is on location, Olson takes notes on color and mood, and uses these to develop his works when he returns to the studio. The starkness of his lonely, monotone photographs is dramatically set off by the thickly textured and vibrantly hued fields of color that constitute the majority of his works’ space. Here Olson is able to fully vent his artistic expertise in an attempt to evoke the experience of the landscape rather than merely give the viewer an image of it. He does so with a variety of materials, including metal, plaster, dyes and wax, as well as objects found on location.

Yellowstone Zen Tree

The found objects in Olson’s work, often rusted metal scraps, are a manifestation of the artist’s thematic interest in “Wabi-Sabi,” the Japanese aesthetic worldview that finds beauty in the natural processes of life, impermanence, imperfection and the unpretentiousness of a rustic existence. “My intention is to capture an essence or a feeling of a specific place,” the artist explains. “I think of the ‘lonleyness’ of the western landscape. I am drawn to the solitary objects sitting in the land – a tree, an old shack etc.” The result in Olson’s work are pieces that use the western landscape not as a place of theatrical awe but as a source of meditation, creating a sense of melancholy and longing that turns the viewer inward.

Olson’s first solo show in Utah was at the Phoenix Gallery in December 2004, where he introduced his “Landscape Memories.” He returned last year with another successful exhibit, “Faults, Sins and Dirt,” and the gallery looks forward to displaying his new work. Judi Grenney, owner of Phoenix Gallery, notes that Olson’s works have resonated strongly with their clients. Olson’s work, she says, has “a rare combination of contemporary and rustic qualities that has wide appeal.” This appeal has frequently outmatched Olson’s ability to provide the gallery with his labor-intensive paintings. “That’s part of what makes his shows so exciting,” Grenney says. “Many of his collectors have been waiting since the last show to add to their collection.”

In Earth and Sky these collectors will find plenty of what they have enjoyed in Olson’s work in the past, but they will also be treated to a new series of paintings. “I am tending to use my photos less and less,” the artist says of his newest body of work. “This liberates me to concentrate on the pure unreferenced abstraction.” Though he is concentrating more on the abstracted qualities of his work, Olson’s pieces are still inspired by the West. From the images of the land Olson has turned his gaze skyward. In Earth and Sky, Olson will be debuting a new series of works inspired by maps of the stars. “I reference the horizon in each piece,” Olson says, “and then play off an abstracted ‘star map.’” In addition, four of the artist’s “Prayer of the Sun and Moon” pieces will be on display.||

Prairie Wind

Earth and Sky is at Phoenix Gallery through February 13th.

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