When you view Curtis Olson’s newest work, up this month at Park City’s JGO Gallery, you’re likely to sense something familiar: some of the pieces may remind you of the spirograph kits and t-shirt designs of your youth (if you are of a certain age), while in others you may recognize references to “sacred geometry” and to the medicine wheels and dance shields from Native American cultures.
These “mandalas,” as Olson calls them, are made of thick layers of brightly-colored plaster with hand-etched geometrical patterns contained in that perennial search for perfection, the circle. They are a continuation, both formally and thematically, of what the artist has been doing for the past decade. First, there were the Landscape Memories, where his colorful plaster impasto framed photographs of old buildings and pieces of rusted metal from the Rocky Mountain west he calls home. Then there were his Knowledge Objects, enigmatic sculptural pieces in a greatly-reduced palette that called to mind ancient (or even alien) civilizations, and suggested lost knowledge and technologies.
These new pieces evoke a related search for knowledge, if a more spiritual one. Sacred geometry — those designs and patterns based on the belief in a geometric underpinning for the universe—plays an important role here. The evenly spaced, overlapping circles that form a floral motif in the design known as “The Flower of Life” (which is found in various sites of the ancient world and is used in a number of occult traditions) appears in multiple works. It may be a limited number of circles that intersect to form a single, central form, as in “Flower Seed,” or it may be a full-fledged flower, in which the pattern repeats multiple times, forming six-petaled structures that receed or advance depending on ones point of focus. In others works, like “Direction 2” and “Compass,” sacred geometry takes the form of straight lines pointing to the cardinal and intercardinal directions and intersecting to form various star patterns. All these designs are inscribed within a thick circle (“mandala” in Sanskrit), which sits at the center of a rectangle whose dimensions are based on sacred proportions (1:1:, 2:3, 3:5). All call to mind mankind’s ancient search for structure, sacredness and a place in the universe.
Olson’s references can be as modern and mundane as they are ancient and sublime. The stripes of color that vertically divide his canvases bring to mind color field painting of the sixties—which was based in its own sense of mysticism and spirituality. But for these works Curtis also cites the influence of 1980s t-shirts designs— those ocean and sunset scenes of bands of color contained within a circular print. This may be a symptom of our time: in the Internet age, when all knowledge is circumscribed by a Google search, going from sacred geometry to outdated t-shirt designs is a matter of a few clicks.
Subtext, featuring work by Curtis Olson and Jay Kelly is at JGO Gallery in Park City (408 Main Street) through March 26.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.