Studio Visit: Katherina Olschbaur, Form as Potential
“When form’s in place, everything within it can be pure feeling”
Chris Kraus, I Love Dick
“There are so many kinds of reality, and so many secret openings in the walls we think are mute.”
Hélén Cixous, Eve Escapes
By Gary Brewer
Paint has the ability to create feeling; it is supple and fluid in its response to the subjective states of mind that guide the painter’s hand. Form exists in its potential of becoming, of transformation; it is the pregnant poetry of possibilities that gives it life. Synthetic hybrids of abstract and figurative elements can coexist in a unified whole; the forms meld in the mind and suggest an ambiguous universe of possibilities.
Katherina Olschbaur creates lush, suggestive paintings in whose forms, figurative and abstract elements are in fluid conversation. They are at times bold and mysterious and in others erotic and humorous; she gives herself the freedom to discover in spontaneous epiphanies, the content of her imagery. Her palette is both the pigment she uses to paint bold gestural strokes of oil on canvas, and the sense impressions and memories that she has collected. “I am like a sponge, I absorb things I see and I use them in my paintings. I have so many things that I have gathered in my memory, when I paint they come out of me.”
We spoke about her move to Los Angeles from Vienna a little over a year ago, of how the freedom and openness of the creative world in Los Angeles has been liberating. “In Vienna the weight of history was always present, you could not get away from it. In contemporary art everything was driven by theory, I felt restricted by this pressure. In Los Angeles you can do whatever you want, there is a much more open and generous spirit. People are curious and open to different ways of creating art.”
When we first met about a year ago in the Bendix building where we both have studios, I dropped in to see her work. She was painting essentially abstract paintings that had spatially ambiguous passages that created an illusion of space, light and shadow. They hovered in an ambiguous realm and were reminiscent of Markus Lupertz work of the 1980’s. The spatial tension against the abstract forms was deeply satisfying and poetic; her paint was applied in bold loose gestures that seemed casual but at times would require many applications to get the look and feel just right. Over this last year, her work has evolved to include images of shoes, horses, and fragments of the body, freely abstracted and adapted to yield to her impulses and inventions of form, space and feeling.
There is a painting in process in her studio of a shoe; the shoe is boldly painted in the foreground, filling the space from top to bottom, framing and cropping the background. Its high heel is suggestive of architecture; a full, sensual, curved column that anchors space and establishes a powerful figure-ground relationship. The sensuous erotic curve of the flesh colored heel also suggests the body and simultaneously conveys sexual, carnal pleasure, but with a delightfully light comedic touch. The background is painted in subtle pale peaches and yellows. A serpentine line that starts at the point of the heel’s contact with the bottom of the painting, moves the eye back into space. A simple and obvious device that winks knowingly at the visual trick, but functions to create deep space that gives the painting breathing room and allows one to step into the light-filled landscape beyond.
“I have many feelings that go through my mind when I am painting. I do not control them but allow them to shift the content of my expressive touch and gesture. In one area it may feel humorous, and in another dark and anxious. I am deeply influenced by the German painters like Martin Kippenberger and Markus Lupertz; the way that they used humor. You need to use humor to be serious. It opens up a space for one to enter a deeper place in the painting and into human consciousness.”
For her upcoming solo show at Nicodim Gallery, she began a series of paintings that freely explore the poetic and narrative possibilities of the image of a horse. One senses a reference back to the Lipizzaner Stallions of Vienna as well as an allusion to the cowboy mythologies embedded in the West. Olschbaur spoke about her fascination with the mythic identity of the cowboy. “It is an American myth of independence and self reliance that is still a powerful metaphor in the West. This idea that one can create their identity is fascinating to me. Being from another country I find that I create my own myths, of who I am and where I come from.”
The curves of the horse’s body play a powerful part in her free interpretations of their anatomical forms. The bold shapes are playfully sexualized and suggest connections to Greek and Roman myths of bestiality and human/animal deities such as Centaurs and Satyrs. These paintings have a deeper sense of humor than any of the other works in her studio. Her statement that “you need to use humor to be serious” is more evident in these paintings where allusions to sexualizing animals plays easier with the element of comedy; they tickle and delight and shed light on the histories of our human/animal nature.
In one painting, two horses, their bodies reduced to two powerfully abstracted forms, were originally painted mirroring each other in the act of jumping. The formal poetry of the shapes, painted in a warm sienna palette, articulates volume in their full sculptural forms. Their equine shapes are coming forward in space against a luminous field of glowing yellow, that transitions into a dirty dark yellow mixed with black. The loose painterly gestures breathe freely and allow light and color to expand into deep space, there is something satisfying in the seemingly casual touch that achieves a very specific feeling. At one point in the process, the horse’s bodies were altered; adapted and fused with human bodies, changed into a chimera. Olschbaur said, “I was painting the beautiful forms of the horses flank, the shapes are so sensual and sexy, I wanted to sexualize them further, so I spontaneously and very quickly changed them into the bottom half of a human body the shapes are very erotic. I work very fast and I painted them wet into wet, so it has this fresh feeling. When I paint, I work until the form, color and narrative become unified.”
In the newest works the gestural and figurative elements have found a deeper unity. A single color fills the field, there are fragments of the human body; a leg for instance. In another painting there is the leg of a horse and a shoe with the suggestion of a human leg. These works have a power in the ease of the conversation between the disparate elements simply held together through the unity of color. The casual movement of a black brush stroke expressing a muscular sensuality, shape-shifts into a leg adorned in a costume from a 17th Century painting. They are playful and have a poetic power that simultaneously beguiles in its narrative complexity, but is accomplished through a simple, visually satisfying wholeness, that allows the images to enter one’s consciousness like a vision.
Katherina Olschbaur creates chimerical paintings that synthesize form and feeling into rich vehicles of metaphoric expression. She pieces together fragments of form, gesture, memory, and figurative elements to create open-ended narratives that explore the contours of her changing thoughts, feelings and emotions. She said of her work, “I am always looking to find a way to include life into the art. I am less interested in developing a style, but more interested in finding ways to fuse all the different levels of reality, lived reality, and energy into my painting.”
Painting is a profound medium; even the word medium implies the conveyance of occult knowledge, of communicating with different levels of reality. It is a form of alchemy that records the living sensate experience of the artist through thoughts and feelings captured in matter and light. In these paintings Olschbaur adds her mark to this endeavor, it is an utterance into a luminous light-filled space in search of an echo that is resonant with the energy of life.
Katherina Olschbaur’s solo exhibition at Nicodim Gallery, Los Angeles opens June 30, 2018
She is in a group show “Seed” at Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York, opening June 21, 2018