Erik Olson: Through the States
On ViewLuis de Jesus
July 18 – October 31, 2020
The 20 hand-colored etchings of Erik Olson’s Through the States, an online exhibition hosted by Luis de Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles, document a motorcycle trip, but as the virtual gallery interweaves text and images, they assume the guise of an animated scrapbook or graphic novel. The project’s concept involves a 2017 commercial transaction by which Olson, a Canadian artist based in Germany, made two full-scale paintings of a motorcycle—a Triumph Bonneville—and sold them to finance the purchase of an actual bike for a road-trip around the States. This transformation of artistic fantasy into “real life” spins out on multiple levels in the digital viewing room, as the bike serves as the vehicle for both the trip and an etching, a template for its visual documentation: poised low in the frame on a strip of highway, the elegantly engineered machine—which Olson describes as a “mobile sculpture”—generates a field for improvisatory riffs and visual storytelling.
The exhibition opens with a rapid, stand-alone animation that displays 19 images at a speed evoking the highway, testing our powers of perception and suggesting that the story of the journey could be told entirely visually, as if by Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov, who avoided scripted narration. The first sets the bike against an expanse of sky and sea near Vancouver, recalling Arthur Rimbaud’s discovery of “eternity” in the sea merged with the sun. Another centers the bike against the receding architecture of Donald Judd’s concrete boxes at Marfa, creating a visual epiphany that needs no commentary. In more complex prints, the radiating spokes of the motorcycle’s wheels generate Orphic color abstractions, suggesting movement and animating Olson’s improvisatory compositions. Approaching El Paso, the Rio Grande appears as a thin ribbon of blue along the highway’s edge, beyond which space dissolves into a tapestry of colored fragments: Ciudad Juárez. A soundtrack of vintage Delta blues recalls narration by a traditional bard.
But Olson’s intention is more novelistic, inspired by the expansive narration and visionary prose of Jack Kerouac; the show concludes with a quotation from On the Road (1957), and Olson’s improvisatory style resonates with Kerouac’s casual syntax, headlong composition, and appetite for immersive experience. Along with views of significant landmarks, Olson narrates a personal story, involving the suicide of a friend, a visit to his childhood home in Boston, and encounters with works of art and music, all embedded in a digitized scroll that constitutes the exhibition’s backbone. Olson expands on his core images with blocks of text, incantatory recitations of place names, photos, videos, handwritten notes, and sketches. More appear beneath this ribbon of text-based content, through windows—one a hallucinatory painting of nocturnal bathers in Big Sur, and another that places us in Olson’s seat (and head) on the bike in Upstate New York, speeding into a tunnel of abstracted foliage as he processes the loss of his friend.
Like Vertov, who included footage of editors cutting and pasting his Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Olson incorporates images of his prints being pulled and his own hand at work. Photos of studios where he stopped to paint in LA and Ontario establish continuity between the isolation of the studio and the existential solitude of the road. In isolation, words take on visionary force: the mountain above Ciudad Juárez is inscribed with “La Biblia Es La Veridad Leela,” which Olson sees as a message. Words can also evoke experiences that can’t be digitized, such as the aura of an original watercolor by William Blake—“bodies seething in a nightmarish sea”—that Olson views with a curator at the National Gallery: “just there, as complex as its existence.”
Shifting time frames complicate the narrative in Washington. Images of signs and demonstrators raise echoes of 1960s populism, as does Olson’s subsequent visit to Woodstock, but his nocturnal rendering of flames consuming the bike, as statues teeter in Lafayette Park, inserts current events into his 2018 trip (all the colored etchings date from 2020). Olson’s call for “dignity,” framed in the columns of the Lincoln Memorial, seems anticlimactic. A more pointed political image comes at a Hopperesque night café in Minnesota, where Olson hears war stories from a damaged Iraq veteran, as the bike, in cinematic mode, illuminates the man’s twirling knife in the beam of its headlight. The violent stories, which send Olson on his way without breakfast, are suggested rather than revealed, secreted outside the digital realm.
Jack Kerouac originally typed On the Road on a 120-foot long scroll of paper, which was exhibited in 2016 at the Centre Pompidou in Paris as a sculptural installation. Olson replaces the physical scroll with the digital gallery, and Kerouac’s compulsive linearity with a self-enclosed loop, embodied in a final image of our hemisphere viewed from space. But the visceral connection of bike to road, embedded in McLuhan’s “hot” technology of printmaking, resists easy absorption into the internet’s cool, immersive flow.