When I’m on the bus I often pretend to be staring off into the distance, but am really concentrated on some passenger unaware of my gaze. I’ve done this for as long as I can remember, and I occasionally slip into fantasy when my attention focuses on a man. It’s a process that has gotten me through some long stagnations in my love life, but one I’m not particularly proud of. In grocery stores, bathrooms, airplanes and sidewalks, I find myself stealing lustful glances of men, imagining wild scenarios where I yank hair, kiss necks, paddle asses. I consume the overall shape, a profile of the face, or a glimpse of the eyes. Snatching these bits and pieces, I let myself imagine the details and repose the body to my perverse liking. The more intensely I look, the greater the fear of being caught. Ingrid Olson creates images that function like these strangers on the bus, and from first glance I wanted to get closer. A similar kind of brazen watching is required to appreciate From her come a gang and a run, a body of work consisting of collages that include figurative photographs, sparse color, and synesthetic effects.
The last few months have been rather lifeless and I’ve staggered around in a growing malaise with flashes of a heightened sex drive. These instances of dissatisfaction are replete with my “fantasy looking” because it provides a sense of control I yearn for. I’d spent an hour navigating public transportation and negative temperatures while trying to untangle my experience with Ingrid Olson’s show.
Feeling anxious I’d missed my connecting bus, I took a moment to privately lament on the poor design of the bus schedule pamphlet which flopped around unfolded. It was freezing cold downtown as I waited for my last transfer to get home. It was getting dark out as I crossed the street and considered the body of work I’d seen. I could sense that everyone was hiding, wrapped up in the blistering shadows of the night. I imagined they were warm with bourbon, one eye out the window and one hand on the thermostat.
There are several large plexiglass encasements, shallow boxes that hang on the gallery walls. Each box contains complex groupings of photographs, drawings, and mixed media that fishtail and re-reference themselves. Individual images rest on one another functioning as partners in a deep lexicon of abstracted figures. Lost in a fog, my mind was stuck on memories of my unsuccessful attempts at companionship last summer. I had tried to grab satisfaction by the hair, claiming the whole milky, dripping head for myself. Instead I’d blinded myself with greed and let it roll down the drain. Standing alone on the street, I turned to see if the bus was in view. I caught a flash of something and did a double-take.
“No eternity, only recognition of self delay” is one of the encased arrangements. It contains shiny paper and paint smears flickering behind an infinite space created with mirror reflections. The black and white photograph features several grounding elements, some of which appear sideways and upside down. In areas you get a glimpse of the artist, but never too clearly. The uncertainty of the grainy details glow with light. Her unfocused chin steams into view, then a midriff covered in fabric at the bottom cuts in. The plastic encasement protecting the images include top and bottom panels glazed in a translucent color. These slits of piss yellow fracture the unsaturated images with a warm stream of colored light. The yellow flows on the images, spreading unevenly along the photographs. The metallic paper at the top of the arrangement reflects our own image back at us, soaked in yellow streams of bright intensity.
He was a quiet and talented artist in a class I had taught six years previous, and we’d had a rather close relationship at the time. I had not forgotten Luis; during our last critique he slipped a silly Photobooth picture of himself in my briefcase which now sits on my desk at work. His face had changed very little since our time in class. My memory of him was as a delicate 17 year old, yet, something very different had emerged in his demeanor and physical presence. Something defiant, sexy, and unexpected.
Olson’s use of abstraction is reminiscent of Saul Liter, but instead of documenting outward society, she turns the camera inward producing brooding views of her studio and herself. Grounded elements appear on their side creating a kaleidoscope effect. Smokey and mirrored figurative elements are framed in pictorial spaces, sparking our desire to look deeper.
Before me stood a tall handsome man in Carhartt’s and Timberland boots who looked unequipped to be outside in the frigid climate. I looked out of the giant black hood that covered most of my face as I noticed how strapping he’d become. His jeans and jacket were oversized on his long slender body. His face and hands poking out were the only indication that this more than hanging clothes. Every angle I noticed him from revealed something potentially important, but never everything at once. The warmth came in waves, small chunks of skin started to make sense with his masculine working clothes. I’d not expected it, but the heat was pooling in me and quickening my thoughts, intensifying my feelings. I was resistant to admit what that warmth represented, because it was incredibly familiar. As long as I didn’t put words to it I could temporarily move on. I was afraid to lose myself to the fantasy, to the possibility of letting this run wild.
Walking towards the bus stop he flipped his head back towards me and our attention met for a split second. There was a moment of uncertainty as to whether or not he’d recognized me, which made me feel even more alone. I was stuck on auto-pilot and wanted to keep my distance, avoiding the situation entirely. Something snapped and I decided to turn directly into the uncertainty.
There is a clear sense of isolation in many of the works, where Olson uses obscured shots of her body in chunks and sections. Her figure is rarely seen uninterrupted by other images, reflections, and elements within her compositions. “Seeing to three” shows the artist’s midsection while she photographs herself in a mirror, behind which we see small scraps of information that describe a sparse studio space. In one sense they seem totally alone, in another, they perform for you because they know you’re watching.
I made a strong effort to push the knotted pit in my stomach and throat lower and lower in my body. I grabbed those feelings yanked them down, offering them to my groin. Some deep desire had absorbed much of the nervous energy, transforming it into a pulsing sensation. I studied his perfectly buzzed hair, sharp jaw, and alert eyes from a cautious distance. I thought I was breathing out my neck, convulsing from the inside.
The segmented photographs and their choppy, loose arrangements within each box billow feelings of isolation. The relationship between these images is revealed slowly, through careful observation from a persistent gaze. Much of the photographic imagery depicts the artist herself, but Olson uses her likeness in layers, cloaking many specifics. Her body becomes the content within the photographs, but she has obscured it to the degree that we are required to actively search. Although we are seeing the artist in her studio, the space and figure have been controlled and manipulated to feel deep, visible in the reflections and repetitious space.
You can only see Olson’s body from a distorted periphery. The way the boxes are composed with layers of photographs physically overlapping and obscuring one another demonstrates the faceted and complex relationship Olson affords the viewer.
When had I decided it was acceptable to pour over this body with such ownership? I was picking up details at a hurried pace, trying to notice everything I could without being caught. This was someone I had had an ethical obligation to at some point. I felt the anxiety melt into something truly erotic as I regained control over myself and attempted to move forward with poise. I tried to mentally reassure myself that he was now an adult, though our history complicated this. I wanted to articulate my self-control but something more disobedient took charge. I was getting hard and my head was hot with blood meant for my heart. Just as I pondered how to step forward I saw the headlights to our bus approach. Our eyes met again, and now I was certain he remembered me, but I assumed that Luis was too nervous to instigate much. Anything deeper than simple greetings with him would need to be fully initiated by me.
“Luis, is that you?” I tried my best to remain composed, but I knew my voice quavered, admitting my nervousness.
“How the hell have you been, dude?” I continued as he stood breathless. “It’s me.”
“Joe?” He faked the surprise, but smiled. “Oh, wow I didn’t recognize you with the beard” He finished, releasing his breath outward towards my face in an opaque cloud of condensed air. I wasn’t sure how to take his response, until I saw him grab a bus ticket and readjust his jeans through the pockets, like there was a clock to wind in there. My eyes followed his movements unapologetically.
The artist retains the power of revealing herself, which is repeated in the mechanics and formal choices in her work. The use of nudity feels at first sensual in tone, but her imagery becomes sexualized when considering the manner in which you’re looking- deeply and without remorse.
“Aren’t you cold in that?” I exclaimed, gesturing to his jeans, jacket, and bare head.
“Long underwear!” He bounced back enthusiastically with a beaming smile. I was completely captivated with his gestures and physicality as he rubbed the front of his denim covered thighs with his hands. The blood in my body rushed to my cheeks and plummeted to my junk simultaneously. In one instance I was sure we were communicating a desire for the other very clearly, a flash of connection. Just as quickly, the dynamic between us smeared and felt uncomfortable. There is something quite tantalizing about the process of discovery through looking, even if we never arrive at something concrete in the end. We made small talk and realized we lived within a few blocks of one another.
Adrift in the details of his physical presence, I dove in noticing his roasted peanut hands, carved dimples, wet eyes, and powder blue nails. This last fact stung with invigoration, putting me in a tailspin. I was hot with reactionary pause, unsure what to do. I peeled my left glove off quickly, grabbing my bus transfer, presenting my mustard yellow pinky nail. I found his hybridic gender fascinating and mouthwatering, as I paused to consider his perfect hands emerging from a rough and rugged tan-colored jacket. He’d taken what little I’d known of him and manipulated it into some enigmatic form. Encased in the gendered layers, there was this raw desire jumping at my legs getting higher with each advance. I shy away, of course, but this only plunges me deeper into desires for lipgloss kisses and juices from mango. I burst internally but catch myself before realizing my surroundings.
The gallery is filled with dark and figurative images inside the boxes, which employ scraps and pieces of the figure. Viewers are again presented with a dilemma, an open gap. It may be unclear how to approach the chunks of obscured flesh in many of the works, where beneath layers of protection exists a vulnerable nude body. Olson doesn’t hide as much as she does slowly reveal herself amongst the stratified images. The stacked images reflect one another, using formal elements like grainy details and dark silhouettes to camouflage themselves and put the audience on a search for visual and emotional clarity. The process-rich compositions challenge viewers to grasp for something not immediately apparent within the imagery presented. What is at first placid bursts from seemingly mundane details, later shows something recognizable and figurative.
We boarded the bus and instinctually moved to the back together where we’d be free of other passengers. He sat right next to me, our knees lightly grazing one another sending sparks and energy back and forth. All I could focus on were his lips, thinking that their rosey color would match the head of his dick. I looked down at his lap, and allowed myself to consider what X-Ray vision would be like in this moment. I’d watch him grow slowly, bounce as the skin on his shaft released from the skin on his balls.
Luis’s leg started bouncing nervously as I began to push my knee gently into his. I was transferring my intensity through to him, despite being unsure if I was reading too far into these gestures. Feeling increasingly bold and aggressive, I touched the inner part of his knee, slowly dragging my hand closer and closer to his crotch. With all the layers, it was hard to sense much of his body under denim and thermal underwear. We’d been facing forward in our seats, but simultaneously glanced up making feverish eye contact. After a few short seconds we had a silent dialogue about our mutual desires and moved ferociously.
I slowly unzipped his jeans, flopping out his hardening dick. I was right about his lips matching the head, and took in a deep breath as I saw precum ooze out. It was hard to look right at him, so the only eye contact we sustained were in flashes and tiny moments between firm pressure. He turned pink with excitement as I awkwardly crouched down in front of him.
Discoveries and moments of clarity flash, smoldering as they recede backwards. When moving through the gallery space, certain boxes reflect the viewer’s own image, further inviting us to look steadily and intently at the work. “Hand Over Head” shows layered drawings and photographs of the artist. In the lower corner, behind an image of her raised arms is a close-up of the artist’s face. Her focused eye looks directly outward while the rest of her face remains a cropped and blurred abstraction.
These works recall fantasies, achieving it through fragmentation and diced-up details. “As a frame marked by an image as a frame” is a photograph containing layered images juxtaposing one another. A delicate hand holds small medical forceps, which floats above a nude female figure centered in the background. A large curved line behind the photographs reappears in several parts of the composition, announcing it’s reconfiguration and marked change. There is an unmistakable dissection of the body, the figure, the artist. You begin to notice the fragility of the person who sustains your gaze. There is a guilt associated with staring at the work because we’re actively bearing witness to the process Olson reveals; one where she’s reshaping herself constantly, articulating her identity fluidly. Stitching these pieces of herself together, Olson leaves some areas closely in focus and loosely tacks the rest on.
In a disorienting coincidence, the bus’s interior lights were flickering and eventually turned off entirely. I looked up and realized there were no other passengers on the bus. Completely releasing his dick and balls from his zippered layers, I grabbed his hips and immediately held him in my mouth. My eyes watered as I slowly went deeper. Suddenly his hands were on the back of my head and he started moving violently. He was rough, despite his youth, which added to my confusion and revelry. I was getting close to busting despite not even touching myself and being crammed between seats. Every bounce and shove of his hips pushed us nearer to one another.
I felt something fill my mouth and gagged, as warm fluid spilled out of my mouth. Was it my own spit? Did he just cum without any warning? I pulled my head away and blinked a few times before I could see. He’d been pissing inside my mouth and it was gushing down my shirt and soaking my jeans. I stood up quickly and moved away, shaking my head in disgust. As I snapped my head back to look, I saw an unmistakably wry smirk across his face, deep dimples etched in. I stumbled towards the back exit of the bus and realized I’d missed my stop many blocks previous. I had angry adrenaline quickening my pace as I walked home. While I tried to replay the details of what had just happened, they became more and more obscured by the growing feeling inside me. I’d actually enjoyed it. The unexpected sensations and power shift astounded me, relinquishing my control and ethical obligation to be sensible.
If you’re looking for a simple and effortless way to approach Olson’s work you’re going to miss out on the depth of power she explores, and fantasy she sets up. Her amalgamation of images and sensory fragments require us to stare and look deeply into her images. She triggers sparks of self-awareness as we find ourselves peering into her studio and at her body. The uncomfortable moments yield provocative discoveries and beg consideration of new perspectives. I grabbed my keys and knocked the snow from my boots, I looked down to unlock my front door. I was expecting to see my clothes soaking in piss, but I was bone dry, as if the whole thing was in my head. His salty-bitter taste lingered in the back of my throat, and at that moment I stopped wondering why I was still hard.
B. Ingrid Olson, From her come a gang and a run, Dec 14th – Jan 25th 2013 at Document, 845 W. Washington, 3rd Floor, Chicago IL, 60607. All images courtesy the artist and Document. www.documentspace.org