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Thomas Øvlisen at Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery

By B. Zhu

January 30, 2012

What interests me about contemporary forms that mimic the look of their presumed Minimalist predecessors is their ambivalent relationship to the history of that art. It may very well be that no connection exists but in the spectator’s mind, but it’s difficult to deny the John McCracken-ness of Thomas Øvlisen’s new works in Tomato; where his plank-like pieces are very traceable visual echoes. The scale, shapes and propping, however, are where the similarities end, and it becomes not the art historical alliances but the departure from them which activates his works.

The fruit brought to mind by the exhibition title is in reference to a memory from Øvlisen’s childhood, when his mother would recall her own childhood memory of at once loathing tomatoes for their taste yet admiring them for the hue of their surface. She continued to eat them in hopes of winning over her palette until she finally did like the taste. There are many poetic and metaphorical ties one could make to surface and content but what matters to me is how very personal and intimate a memory it is which Øvlisen associates with this body of work. What is interesting is how ripe with the tension of a sensual and visual disconnect the anecdote is. At its center is a story about desire tempered by aversion, and these are struggles waged in an emotional realm where the Minimalists did not tread.

That said, surface remains important here and takes the works beyond that easy historical constraint. Øvlisen coats the polystyrene pieces with auto-lacquer and enamel which is then sanded and layered over to create a surprisingly painterly and seductively glossy finish. And though the technique used is quite straightforward, the results are surprisingly varied. AIWTDWIWUITMI recalls a spring meadow with its grassy, neon greens overlapped by a peachy coral and a dusky, cloudy white that look like a big soft paint brush had laid them down. TCABLAR possess a more graphic application of paint, an inviting pink shuttered behind a creamy yellow-tinged lacquer, weathered and scuffed by the sander. The works that are propped against the wall invite the spectator to pick them up, turn them on their heads, or otherwise re-prop them to expose the once unexposed other side of the plank, revealing a different painting altogether.

Though this sort of nerve-wracking audience participation may recall the awkward/exciting interaction one may have with a Carl Andre, Øvlisen wants you to interact in a way which is dismissive of the authoritative/intuitive artist’s or curator’s eye–you are beckoned not only to assume the role of art handler, but curator, exhibition designer and activator. The work is your interaction with it, truly, and the room for your involvement is huge.

To revisit that fictional precedent, you may indeed, and ought to, step onto a Carl Andre but only in a way very much determined by the artist. You may not nudge the entire piece over a few inches. You absolutely may not attempt to flip it over unless it is during off hours and are employed by the exhibition space. Even so, I can assuredly say nothing on its backside will surprise you. Øvlisen is more fun in that way, possessing a friendlier and more palatable approach to art. So if the memory of his mother and a tomato is not enough to charm you entirely, the opportunity to manhandle and maneuver a glossy foam slab if his absolutely will.