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Illuminated in gas station's fluorescent glow

October 03, 2003|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Robert Olsen is a nighthawk. His small oil paintings on panel, none more than a foot high, show fragments of a city after dark. Like Edward Hopper, he finds the artificial glow of electric light consoling in the silent emptiness of the wee hours. Unlike Hopper, he depicts the machinery of modern living without the men and women who are threaded through it.

Instead, Olsen threads viewers through his paintings. A third solo show by the young L.A. artist deepens and complicates the resonance felt in his earlier outings at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Then, the shows featured "portraits" of soda vending machines, ATMs, parking meters and bus shelters, each one illuminated from within and surrounded by forbidding darkness. This one concentrates on a single gas station on Sepulveda Boulevard: eight pumps, eight paintings -- one pump each.

The eight small panels are lined up in a row on the wall. Like Monet's views of Rouen's cathedral, but with cool fluorescent light standing in for the dappled differentiation of sunshine, Olsen's finely wrought serial images isolate their mechanical subject from the surrounding context. He erases all advertising and instructional text from the pumps, which are seen up close and fill the frames, saving only the numbers 1 through 8 in the pumps' upper corners, used to identify each.

As a group, the paintings establish a weird visual logic. When you scan from left to right, the numbers and the pump configurations orient you in space. Sometimes a second pump can be seen peeking out from behind the machine that dominates the foreground. Odd-numbered pumps stand behind one another, receding into the darkness; even-numbered pumps advance toward you. Nos. 2 and 7 stand in grand isolation, like archaic sentinels at some latter-day Luxor in an urban desert.

The others show a glimpse of the gas station's sheltering canopies above the pumps. These umbrella-like canopies contribute to the struggle between dull utilitarianism and disciplined poetry that characterizes Olsen's bracing aesthetic approach. Awkward in design and visually ugly, they're a testament (if one were needed) to the worst indifference that typifies modern vernacular architecture.

As machines, Olsen's gas pumps nostalgically recall cinematic robots. Their location wittily alludes to the black silence of deep space. Would that a gas station designer might generate such clever amusements.

Olsen uses elements of composition, lighting and abstraction (including the numbers) to render a fully dimensional space. The abstraction is italicized through painterly technique, in which each pump (and each painted panel) becomes a careful composition of geometric shapes. Color is cool and tamped down -- ochre, blues, brown, silvery gray -- punctuated with black and white. You scrutinize this otherwise familiar, thoroughly mundane island of tranquillity as if it were an alien landscape.

Which is, of course, what one wants from first-rate landscape painting -- the capacity to see it in a fully wrought experience, rather than to merely look at it. The last time a painter accomplished that feat with gas stations as subject matter was 40 years ago, when Edward Ruscha painted L.A.'s petroleum plazas in dramatic high style as blaring word poems. "Standards!" declared Ruscha's graphically acute paintings of Standard gas stations, even as they broke every art standard in the book.

Olsen replaces Hollywood glamour with homeliness while retaining finely tuned specificity. His gas stations are very different from Ruscha's, but they are also self-assured and eloquent.

Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 5363 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 933-2117, through Oct. 11. Closed Sunday and Monday.


Mastering the mass media

A pair of solo shows at the new Carl Berg Gallery demonstrates complementary but differing views of the strange numbness that surrounds violence in a media-saturated environment. Kristi Kent makes her debut in the front room with shadow boxes and a motorized sculpture; in the rear gallery, veteran painter Megan Williams makes a welcome return after a four-year hiatus.

Williams shows four works whose manic energy derives from a beautifully rendered mix of Futurist iconoclasm and mass media cartoons. Marinetti meets Mickey Mouse.

One shows a nearly abstract blast, as if a cannonball had ripped through the thickly woven canvas trailing clouds of smoke (and, given the trajectory, whizzed just past your head). Another shows a spurting garden hose, gripped by half a dozen hands in a gesture suggestive of masturbation -- nurturance merged with solipsism. A third follows the wreck of a toy train, which shatters into 33 progressively smaller canvases, the smallest lying scattered on the floor.

Williams' most compelling painting shows a swirling puddle of ochre color invaded by four arms. A flurry of hands furiously wrestles a tangled length of rope. It's a strange work -- an aggressive form of pictorial bondage, which ties your vision up in knots.

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