Saturday, July 26, 2014


I read the other day about the death of an artist named Robert Olsen. To be honest, I'd never heard of him. He was a young (44) LA artist who painted scenes and objects of ordinary urban life -- bus stops, gas signs and pumps, dumpsters, bus shelters, and his latest, shadows of freeway overpasses. One reviewer described his work thus: "Unlike Hopper, he depicts the machinery of modern living without the men and women who are threaded through it."

no title, oil on canvas over panel, 13 3/8 x 21 1/2 inches, 2014

 no title, oil on panel, 9 x 16 inches, 2010

Station, gesso on canvas over panel, 11 x 26 inches, 2009

 no title, oil on panel, 9 x 16 inches, 2008

 no title, oil on panel, 9 x 16 inches, 2007

Like a visual Bukowski (sans the sex and anger), Olsen's images have a desolation, a bleakness, that resonates with the darker side of life. And his paintings are both painted at night and use night as a subject to emphasize the solitary, lonely energy of 3am on the streets. They are utterly compelling and seductive, using a relentless vision that simultaneously pits contemporary angst and anxiety against a comforting, almost peaceful, view of a familiar urban landscape.

Two obits from Art Forum here and here and one from the LA Times provide additional background about Robert Olsen's artistic practice and tributes to his spirit as an artist.


The Conversation, oil on canvas, 50 x 70 inches, 1991

A rather sunnier version of Robert Olsen might be found in the work of artist John Register (1939-1996). Like Olsen, his vacant American landscapes are still and quiet, but filled in living California color with the haunting specter of unfulfilled dreams. Endless empty seats silently waiting and watching, as demure witnesses to our presence and, perhaps, our departure. Diners, laundry mats, lobbies, and literal waiting rooms present themselves with a bloated anticipation, like a breath taken and awaiting its release.

 Red Booths, silkscreen, 33 1/2 x 48 inches, 1986

 Waiting Room for the Beyond, silkscreen, 41 x 41 inches, 1988

 Venetian Light, silkscreen & lithograph, 50 x 42 inches, 1990

You are right if you are reminded of Hopper, but Register himself said, "Hopper paints someone else's isolation. In my pictures you're the isolated one." 1.

It seems not coincidental that both Olsen and Register painted in California....
“California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things better work here, because here, beneath the immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.” ~ Joan Didion
Wasteland Hotel, silkscreen, 42 1/2 x 56 1/2 inches, 1990


But if these two artists depict a certain despair, I would posit that  Doug Young's empty rooms are similarly haunting, but they are not hollowed out psychological dramas. Young's images navigate our dreams and aspirations for space travel, musical talent, American heroes, or the bright side of luck. His vacant scenes are actually unflinching snapshots of the complexity of hope. 

Mission Control, reverse painting on glass, automotive paint, 49 x 49 inches, 2011 

Air Force One, reverse painting on glass, automotive paint, 49 x 49 inches, 2014

Price is Right, reverse painting on glass, automotive paint, 49 x 49 inches, 2013  

Music Room, reverse painting on glass, automotive paint, 49 x 49 inches, 2012

“I'm not telling you to make the world better, because I don't think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I'm just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave's a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that's what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.”
~ Joan Didion


Friday, June 6, 2014

The Gilded Age

Italianate, 1852 / Second Empire French, Richard Morris Hunt, 1873. William Shepard Wetmore, China trade, d.1862.

The C.H. Baldwin Residence. American Shingle Style, Potter and Robinson, 1878. Admiral Charles H. Baldwin, d.1888.

I just visited Newport and boy are the houses there amazing.  It's funny to eschew the capitalist obsession with wealth accumulation and yet still be enchanted by the palaces of kings and queens in England or the historic houses of America's tycoons. But it really is easy to enjoy the architectural splendors of earlier times.

Chateau-Nooga. Queen Anne Revival, George Browne Post, 1881. C.C. Baldwin, railroads, d. 1897.

"Vinland" Mansion. Romanesque Revival Style, Peabody & Stearns, 1882. Catherine Lorillard Wolfe, real estate and philanthropy, d.1887.

Isaac Bell House. American Shingle Style, McKim, Mead & White, 1883. Isaac Bell Jr., cotton broker, d. 1889

In Newport, the homes -- true mansions -- were built during the Gilded Age by those who earned their fortunes in banking, manufacturing, oil, railroads, steel, and other burgeoning industries.
Without exception, these great homes from America's Gilded Age are wonderful and unique windows into a time of unprecedented change and creativity in American culture. A time when the explosive growth in technology made some wealthy and promised a utopia where individuals could develop to their highest and best purpose. A time when, for many Americans, all of human history seemed to point to America and its destiny to bring Western culture to its ultimate expression. 1

De La Salle / The William Weld House.
Queen Anne-Romanesque, Dudley Newton, 1884. William Gordon Weld II, merchant and advocate for education, d.1896.

Knight Cottage "Mary Bruen House" American Shingle Style, William Ralph Emerson, 1883. Mary Bruen, widow of a Reverend, d.1886.

Osgood-Pell House. Romanesque Revival, Harding & Dinkelberg, 1887. William H. Osgood, zinc fortune, d.1896.

The Gilded Age produced tremendous economic inequality, in part, because taxes weren't levied on income. Today, we are very much in a "Second Gilded Age" -- one where income inequality exists, in part, because earnings from 'gambling' on the stock market are not taxed as income. 2

I certainly appreciate folks such as Bill and Linda Gates for their tremendous charity and commitment to philanthropy. And Warren Buffet, who sits at #2 right after the Gateses on the list of 400 richest Americans, has professed that “the proceeds from all Berkshire shares I still own at death are to be used for philanthropic purposes.” There are likely many others with a strong philanthropic focus but how many of these new billionaires will leave behind something to rival the design traditions of the late-19th century? How many will only embrace the effective altruism movement and not see value in arts and culture?

It's not that I want rich people running around building crappy McMansions, but there is something to be said for leaving things behind, physical things of aesthetic and cultural value, that can represent the hopes and aspirations, dreams and dreads, of an era. So let us then admire and be uplifted by the architectural marvels of the past of: Beaux Arts, Châteauesque, Classical Revival, Italian Renaissance, Queen Anne, Shingle Style, and Tudor Revival.

Ochre Court.  Châteauesque, Richard Morris Hunt, 1892.  Ogden Goelet, banking / real estate, d. 1897

Rough Point. English Manor Style, Peabody & Stearns, 1892. Frederick William Vanderbilt, railroads, d.1938.

The Breakers. Italian Renaissance Style, Richard Morris Hunt, 1895. Cornelius Vanderbilt II, railroads, d.1899

The ElmsBeaux-Arts style, Horace Trumbauer, 1901. Edward Julius Berwind, coal baron, d.1938.



Monday, January 20, 2014

Go with me

It is entirely fitting that it requires a ferry to get to the beinhaus (charnel house) in the remote village of Hallstatt, Austria. 

The mythological river Styx, the conduit between the world of the living and the world of the dead,  entailed a notorious ferry ride.

Landscape with Charon Crossing the Styx, Joachim Patinir c. 1515–1524, Museo del Prado of Madrid, Spain.

Situated between a lake and a mountain, Hallstatt has a famous ossuary, a site frequently used when burial space is scarce. It is filled with remarkable, and hauntingly beautiful, painted skulls.

“As a child, I visited the ossuary, with its painted skulls, one of the strangest places I have ever been—a mystic and very silent place,” the photographer Paul Krasner told The New Yorker this month. “As one would decorate a grave with flowers, the skulls were painted by the local gravedigger. Earth pigments were used, and the women’s skulls were painted with colorful flowers, the men’s with ivy leaves. The deceased’s date of birth and death were written on their forehead. This tradition began in 1720 A.D., and there are now over twelve hundred skulls, six hundred and ten of which have been painted."

"All are at one now, roses and lovers,
Not known of the cliffs and the fields and the sea.
Not a breath of the time that has been hovers
In the air now soft with a summer to be."
~ Swinburne, "A Forsaken Garden"

Paul Krasner's photo project, Vademecum, began in 2010. The title derives from the latin vade mecum, which literally translates to “Go with me” or "Walk with me"  and refers to a handbook, manual, or guidebook.

Bone houses present the living with the opportunity to confront or commune with death and the dead. (It is an interesting fact that human beings housed their dead before they housed themselves.)1.  Krasner's project offers access to the timelessness and connectivity that these unique spaces possess. They are at once alive in the present, staring at the past, and beg contemplation of the future. "For what is a place if not its memory of itself - a site or locale where time turns back upon itself?" 2.

We are all "eventually united–as people were in these places, in these homogenous piles." - Paul Koudounaris, author of The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses 

1. Robert Pogue Harrison, Dominion of the Dead, University of Chicago Press, 2003, p38.
2. Harrison, p23