Let us consider Galerie Buchholz first: from the elegant lobby of a townhouse on the Upper East Side we step into a torn-apart gallery space where cut-up partition walls and boarded-up doorways still remain as visible marks left behind by the rough dismantling of the previous exhibition. A series of large collage paintings on black hardboard, bearing the Samuel R. Delany title After Dhalgren (2015), combine found photographic materials with random blobs of paint and stencil prints of a circle and a triangle.
It’s all very Rauschenbergian, even if Olesen’s archive varies from that of the American forerunner of Pop: a ruin, a plume of smoke, a reclining young man in a jockstrap, jagged cliffs, a classic gay leatherman, flames, and George Harrison’s digitally blurred face. Images of desire and destruction collide with the hardboard frames (in themselves reminiscent of school blackboards), effecting a confrontation between the formless and the schematic, structure and decay, geometry and random shapes. This contrast is not in itself a new feature of Olesen’s practice. It has been an underlying theme in earlier works, such as Some Faggy Gestures (2008), but here it appears without being legitimised by a specific, research-based critique of history.
Reena Spaulings plays the part of a downtown gallery to perfection. The gallery is housed above a greasy spoon restaurant, and it seems that filled ashtrays and empty beer bottles are staple features of all exhibition designs at this venue. Here, we step into an abattoir-like scene with life-sized collages of cut-up animal carcasses on transparent protective plastic. These compositions, which combine leftover paint and animal remains, are sharply contrasted by a vermillion plywood copy of Anthony Caro’s sculpture Early One Morning from 1962 with the aforementioned distorted portrait of George Harrison glued on. Found online by Olesen, the photographs of dead animal carcasses are reminiscent of the doctor-cum-Surrealist Jacques-André Boiffard’s deadpan documentation of corporeal decomposition on the doctor’s couch and in the slaughterhouses of Paris. Contrasting this, the Caro sculpture constitutes a reference to a sophisticated, delicate high-modernist mode of expression.
But what should we make of the formal contrasts in Olesen’s work? Or, indeed of Mark von Schlegell’s tongue-in-cheek references (made in the press kit for Buchholz) to the gallery world’s ceaseless slam-dance between the posh elegance of uptown and the grungy underground sensibilities of downtown? Does the contrast between totality and fragment, original and replica express a fundamental difference between a heteronormative perception of reality and a queer-subjective anti-norm, as is claimed by the established Olesen reception?
The two exhibitions challenge our established views of Olesen’s practice and of the archival tradition he inhabits. In both shows, the contrast between the banal and the exquisite appear to be two aspects of the same matter. As fragments and copies, Olesen’s collages and sculptures are in themselves relics of a kind, embarrassingly imperfect and shapeless, yet still – and perhaps for that very reason – fascinating. To borrow a term from the Surrealists, they are exquisite corpses. In this way Olesen unearths yet another layer of the use of appropriation as a critical instrument and formal procedure, including such usage in his own practice which now, more than ever, addresses the corrosive nature of repetition.