On Henrik Olesen at Gaga & Reena Spauling, Los Angeles

— Thomas Duncan

Henrik Olesen, Body of Shit 2, 2020,  oil and mixed media on wood, 30.8 x 46.7 cm

Henrik Olesen, Body of Shit 2, 2020, oil and mixed media on wood, 30.8 x 46.7 cm

“Henrik Olesen”
Galerie Buchholz, Cologne
May 22–August 15, 2020

“Henrik Olesen”
dépendance, Brussels
September 3–October 24, 2020

Henrik Olesen, “Hey Restless!”
Gaga & Reena Spaulings, Los Angeles
March 20–April 24, 2021

A dictionary begins when it no longer gives
the meanings of words, but their tasks.
Georges Bataille[1]

To what extent are we plastic?
Catherine Malabou[2]

The work of Danish artist Henrik Olesen investigates the body in relation to systems of normalization and control. By taking on sources that range from historical representations of “aberrant” sexuality to Foucault’s panopticism, he assails the limits placed upon the body by institutions of heteronormativity. He often deploys the conceptual knottiness of these concerns through a rough-hewn aesthetic comprised of humble materials and intense colors. A particularly striking dimension of Olesen’s oeuvre is his confabulation of literary and art-historical discourses. His exhibitions have respectively enacted exchanges between philosophy and Minimalism, hagiography and modernist sculpture, and science fiction and collage, to cite just three.[3] By filtering these fields of knowledge through one another, Olesen transmogrifies them both conceptually and materially.

In a new series of paintings spanning all three of his recent exhibitions at Galerie Buchholz, dépendance, and Reena Spaulings, Olesen advances this activity by interpenetrating Jean Fautrier’s textured canvases and the philosophical writings of Georges Bataille and Catherine Malabou. Though such a dialogic method is hardly novel for Olesen, his direct engagement with the space of painting here—at least in a more traditional sense—is a new development.[4] Olesen’s recent turn to painterly conventions offers him a more fluid conduit for exploring the body’s internal systems with a mind toward today’s paradoxically networked and disconnected state of being.

On the surface of things, it would appear that Fautrier’s spirit permeates everything here. Within the progression of this series, Olesen alternates allusions to two of Fautrier’s most famous canvases: L’Homme ouvert (L’Autopsie) (1928–29) and Tête d’otage nO 20 (1944). The former, as its title suggests, reveals a nude male cadaver whose abdomen has been cut open. Despite Fautrier’s fascination with viscera, he does not assault the viewer with gory mimeticism but instead depicts entrails as serpentine squiggles. These haptic gestures accentuate the bodily essence of painterly facture, what one scholar has compellingly referred to as “the anatomy of painting itself.”[5] Tête d’otage n° 20, another Fautrier canvas that Olesen quotes directly in his series, has its origins in the Second World War. Like most works from Fautrier’s Les Otages (Hostages) series (1943–45), this one figures an abstracted human head that has suffered immense violence, perhaps even decapitation—its strokes of red allude to both a facial profile and streams of blood. The narrative behind this series centers on Fautrier’s time at a sanatorium in the Paris suburb of Châtenay-Malabry where he sought refuge during the war. In a forest near this site, we are told, the artist overheard and even witnessed Nazi soldiers torture and execute hostages. While there is evidence to suggest Fautrier began his series at least a year before these alleged events, his canvases nevertheless enact a balance between brutality and delicacy, between tactility and vision, between formalism and discursivity.[6]

In Olesen’s conjuring of Fautrier, there is more at work than simple mimicry. Though Olesen uses scanned copies of the French artist’s canvases either as “posters” to introduce a show or to reside next to one of his own works, he does this less for the sake of likeness than to establish fundamental distinction. Indeed, Olesen deliberately repurposes the older artist’s operations, a distortion that allows him to revel in his own painterly program. Take, for example, intestine, red, black (2020), a textured network of hot red and matte black that evokes a fusion of guts and smeared feces. Olesen obsessively plied layer after layer of oil onto the wood support, culminating in a surface that traffics in tensions between matte and shininess, smoothness and scarification. Yet within this membrane-like texture, Fautrier’s serpentine bowels remain legible. Giving viewers an immediate means of measuring the ways in which he has strayed from his referent, the artist supplies a stapled reproduction of L’Homme ouvert on the wall to the left of the painting. To its right, the dangling coils of a power strip echo their neighboring intestinal forms.

However, unlike Fautrier’s ruminations on the atrocities of the Second World War and the collective trauma they produced, Olesen reflects on the restlessness of contemporaneity. Indeed, the repetitive action of building up and breaking down his surface creates a system analogous to the body’s continuous ingestion of energy and excretion of waste. The power strip, whose round orifices Olesen penetrated with black paint, shifts this already scatological scene even further into the realm of sexualized anality. This readymade, however, suggests much more than this. For in this context, it presents us not only with notions of being “turned on” and/or anally penetrated, but it also lays bare the role that technological connectivity (internet porn, hook-up apps) plays therein. In place of Fautrier’s representations of mortality we find an analogue for our current (pandemic) condition: bodies that exist in space yet are physically shut off from others, bodies frustrated by compulsory mediation and the inability to dis/connect with other bodies.[7] And yet, Fautrier’s “anatomy of painting itself” remains. Here, the body penetrates painting, and the painted surface becomes corporeal: the unification of painting’s somatic viscosity, its haptic constructs, its phenomenological offerings, and its semiotic potentials. It is for these reasons, I believe, that Olesen has moved into painting for the first time in his three-decade career.

But is Fautrier just a foil for Olesen? An arbitrary choice? If the goal is to retool the visceral performativity of European painting produced in the aftermath of the Second World War, why not turn to Jean Dubuffet or even Olesen’s Danish compatriot Asger Jorn? As we will see, Olesen’s exploitation of Fautrier extends beyond a general interest in such “positive barbarism.”[8] Take Hey Formless! (2021), a thickly impastoed web of creamy whites, diluted blacks, and Twomblyesque scrawls over a milky blue ground. The exclamatory tone of Hey Formless! would suggest a self-reflexive pointing to its nonrepresentational qualities but instead calls attention to Bataille’s concept of formless (informe). Indeed, it is crucial to underscore Bataille’s association with Fautrier. Though the two eventually collaborated on at least two publications in the 1940s, the overlap between their respective preoccupations dates back to the late 1920s.[9] Olesen’s choice of Fautrier-as-vessel, then, becomes all the more apparent.

The concept of formless, as Rosalind Krauss argues, is not a style but an operation:

For Bataille, informe is the category that would allow all categories to be unthought. [] Bataille does not give informe a meaning; rather he posits for it a job: to undo formal categories, to deny that each thing has its “proper” form, to imagine meaning as gone shapeless, as though it were a spider or an earthworm crushed underfoot. This notion of informe does not propose a higher, more transcendent meaning, through a dialectical movement of thought. The boundaries of terms are not imagined by Bataille as transcended, but merely as transgressed or broken, producing formlessness through deliquescence, putrifaction, decay.[10]

As Krauss makes clear, formless is not a descriptor for modernist abstraction but a process by which accepted frameworks are transgressed and debased. As such, Bataille’s dismantling of categorical thinking maps well onto Olesen’s project. For they both share a compulsion to disrupt commonly held assumptions, to challenge them by debasing their qualities, to bring them down via their corruption.[11]

Formless operates in Olesen’s paintings at the levels of both retention and degradation. In Nervous Sun, blue and green (2020), for instance, Olesen is at pains to maintain Fautrier’s dislocation of facture from chroma, a process that accentuates the former’s bas-relief quality through the latter.[12] “Fautrier partakes of the informe,” Yve-Alain Bois argues, “when, in his late period, the kitsch disjunction between color and facture casts a retrospective shadow of suspicion on the ‘authenticity’ of personal touch, which, ever since impressionism, was held to be the very antidote to the kitsch of the culture industry.”[13] Certainly, Olesen goes to great lengths to ensure that the “authenticity” of his touch filters through the recognizability of Fautrier’s production and in so doing, he retains his negation of negation, his resistance to resistance. However, Olesen’s retention of this dislocation of texture from chroma is also an act of transgression. Accordingly, Body of Shit 2 (2020), another work that performs Fautrier’s facture/color split, debases Fautrier’s materiality. “Bataille’s ‘matter,’” Bois continues, “is shit or laughter or an obscene word or madness.”[14] Indeed, by scrawling the work’s title in capital letters on a strip of masking tape, Olesen at once debauches Fautrier’s Otages and universalizes the transformative powers of digestion. This duality is no accident: in choosing the operational mode of painting, Olesen corporealizes the tension between the self-analytical nature of painterly production and the readymade nature of appropriation. In other words, with the painterly gesture, Olesen effects a queered connection between the modernist strategy of negation and the postmodernist strategy of replication. With such maneuvers, Olesen does not perform an overt political attack on the power structures that have historically been defined by heteronormativity; instead, he emphasizes that by leaning into what these structures perceive to be abnormal or perverted, we can be reminded of our humanity. And from there, a new understanding of identity may materialize.

Far from suggesting that notions of interiority and transformation must reside within the realm of digestion and excrement alone, canvases such as Hey Plasticity (2021) give way to cerebral elasticity. In this work, Olesen undoes Fautrier’s facture to the point of disintegration. Four sloppy clouds of oil, gel medium, and acrylic paste coexist in varying modes of tactility—stickiness and glutinousness meet with scrapes and cracks. The viscosity of materials at play here suggests an overriding investment in the malleability of matter and form: plasticity. Plasticity in art relates to the materiality of the art-making process (the tangible, malleable “product” as physical form). In neuroscience, plasticity refers to how the brain itself is pliable—how its physical structure transforms over time through experience and learning. The latter aspect of plasticity has been of primary concern to philosopher Catherine Malabou for many years now.[15] Malabou’s plasticity, however, seeks to identify the relationship between the material brain and thought. It allows the brain to be described as an unprecedented complex of dynamic, structural, and networked organization.

Despite, or perhaps because of its material poverty, Hey Plasticity manages to conjure these artistic, scientific, and philosophical approaches to plasticity all at once. While painted readymade power strips accompany intestine, red, black and Hey Formless!, an untouched one accompanies Hey Plasticity. Not only does this gesture counter the painting’s handmade dirtiness with a clean, industrially molded plastic commodity but it also saps the canvas of its autonomy. Olesen’s emphasis on plasticity—both in the senses of the viscosity of paint and the cellular structure of brains—also comes to include the cybernetic and digital social networks that we habitually utilize and that affect our cognitive processes. In this context of malleability, Olesen reminds us of what networked technologies do to us, not only that we use them but that we become them, that our neurological pathways are reshaped by them. Thus, Olesen uses Malabou’s notion of plasticity to underscore how both the brain and artistic practice are restless networks of distribution, a point he manifests through the connectivity of his paintings: a series of formally and aesthetically linked operations that metamorphose from one iteration to the next.

Olesen’s repetition and debasement of preceding concepts lead to an assertion of difference that can be deeply productive, rather than debilitating, and can open up the possibilities for modes of productivity not premised on sameness. Disruption, sabotage, slippage, misalignment, corruption: these are Olesen’s goals, not faithful emulation. These paintings prey upon the established borders of art history and bodily decorum with the explicit purpose of transgressing them, and in so doing, they create a productive imbalance between sign and destabilized referent. By trawling the archives of modern art, philosophy, and queerness, Olesen clashes elements from each to insist that we should never consider them fixed but rather restless.

  1. [1] Georges Bataille, “Formless,” in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939, ed. Allan Stoekl, trans. Allan Stoekl with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie, Jr., Theory and History of Literature, vol. 14 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 31.
  2. [2] Catherine Malabou, What Should We Do with Our Brain?, trans. Sebastian Rand, Perspectives in Continental Philosophy (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 14.
  3. [3] In 2018, for “Hey Panopticon! Hey Asymmetry!” at Schinkel Pavillon, Berlin, he put Michel Foucault’s panopticism in dialogue with the Minimal forms of artists such as Donald Judd. For “Henrik Olesen” at Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York, in 2016, he quoted both the legend of St. George and the painted sculpture of Anthony Caro, while a “concurrent” show at Galerie Buchholz in New York used the flattened materiality of collage to intermingle references to Samuel R. Delany’s 1975 science-fiction novel Dahlgren.
  4. [4] Olesen has explored the contours of painting in the past, most evidently through wall-mounted works such as his collages and painted “box” sculptures within which he effects a productive cross-pollination of painting and sculpture; however, Olesen’s new series is a material and formal departure in that these works embrace modes of painterly facture and abstraction on more traditional surfaces such as canvas and Masonite.
  5. [5] Eduardo Jorge de Oliveira, “Jean Fautrier et Georges Bataille, le contact érotique de la matière,” in Jean Fautrier, Matière et lumière (Paris: Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris, 2018), 226. Though the press release for the Buchholz exhibition states that L’Homme ouvert is “a painting about which it is said that: it is an anatomy lesson of painting itself” and that “here the paths of Fautrier and Georges Bataille crossed,” there is no mention of de Oliveira or the exhibition catalogue in which his text appeared.
  6. [6] For an examination of the mythologization of Fautrier’s Les Otages, particularly in respect to the Jewish figures depicted therein, see Rachel E. Perry, “Jean Fautrier’s Jolies Juives,” October 108 (Spring 2004): 51–72.
  7. [7] These sentiments are echoed by the skin-like silicone casts of keyboards that were also part of the Buchholz exhibition. Under lockdown the keyboard acts a surrogate for corporeal contact—fingers caress the rigidity of the technological commodity instead of the pliability of human skin. By casting the keyboard in silicone, Olesen fuses distance and proximity by making the keyboard become skin.
  8. [8] I borrow this term from Hal Foster, who borrowed it from Walter Benjamin’s essay “Experience and Poverty.” Benjamin’s concept of “positive barbarism”—a countering of actual barbarism by means of making a new beginning or cleaning of the slate—informs Foster’s recent exploration of postwar European painting. See Hal Foster, Brutal Aesthetics: Dubuffet, Bataille, Jorn, Paolozzi, Oldenburg (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020); see also Walter Benjamin, “Experience and Poverty,” in Selected Writings, Volume 2: Part 2: 1931–1934, ed. Michael W. Jennings et al. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005), 731–36.
  9. [9] Even though Fautrier painted L’Homme ouvert around the time that Bataille penned Formless, in 1929, there is little historical evidence that one had any bearing on the other at the time. For an examination of their eventual collaboration on the publications Madame Edwarda (1945) and L’Alleluiah (1947) in which Fautrier supplied illustrations to complement Bataille’s writing, see Eduardo Jorge de Oliveira, “Jean Fautrier et Georges Bataille, le contact érotique de la matière,” in Jean Fautrier, Matière et lumière: exposition (Paris: Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris, 2018).
  10. [10] Rosalind Krauss, “Corpus Delicti,” October 33 (Summer 1985): 39–40.
  11. [11] It is important to note that Olesen’s use of formless, or for that matter his reference to the writings of Georges Bataille, does not make its premier here. Olesen’s allusions to this writer have punctuated his work since 2016, if not earlier.
  12. [12] See Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Fautrier’s Natures Mortes,” in Jean Fautrier, 1898–1964 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), 65. Buchloh underscores a point that is surely not lost on Olesen: “The technique of building up an enduit [] is not Fautrier’s invention. By the time he employed the technique, it had a complex past of various applications and functions that originated in the twentieth century in postcubist attempts (e.g., Juan Gris and Fernand Léger) to increase the tectonic quality of easel painting.” In other words, Olesen is appropriating an appropriation.
  13. [13] Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, Formless: A User’s Guide (New York: Zone Books, 1997), 140.
  14. [14] Ibid., 29.
  15. [15] See Catherine Malabou, The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic, trans. Lisabeth During (New York: Routledge, 2005); What Should We Do With Our Brain? op. cit.; and The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage, trans. Steven Miller (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012).