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Erik Olson: Playing with Light

Erik Olson "Two Lincolns One Guy"
"Two Lincolns One Guy" by Erik Olson.

A nude woman reclines against the backdrop of a mountain range, the forested peaks following the gentle curves of her pale body. A puff of cloud pauses, cheekily, at the point of her nipple.

Nipomo artist Erik Olson snapped the photograph, "Trained Cloud & Mountain," on a trip to the Sierra Mountains in 1983. As he raised his camera to capture the sight of his wife sunbathing, he realized, "There was a relationship between her body and the mountain. I couldn't believe it. It was too fun."

Olson explores the idea of interconnectivity -- the ineffable links between light and shadow, line and shape, form and reflection -- in his solo exhibition "Erik Olson: Eye Matters," running Jan. 2 through Feb. 28 at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art. It features abstract paintings and photographs.

"That's a motif that's now running throughout this show," Olson, 67, said.

"There's that dialogue that's happening between different elements," explained the tall, soft-spoken retired architect, who moved to the Central Coast in the summer of 2009.

"There's the relationship of things that are not necessarily supposed to be relating to each other."

"Trained Cloud & Mountain" by Erik Olson.

Born in Fullerton, Olson grew up in Covina at a time when orange groves still blanketed the area. "When I was a kid, it was paradise," he recalled. "It was really different by the time I was out of high school. All the groves were gone... and then all the open fields were gone, [replaced] by stucco houses."

By then, Olson was gone as well -- off to Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, then to Monterey, where he was stationed during the Vietnam War. He returned to Southern California to explore Pasadena's avant-garde art scene before enrolling at UCLA.

There, Olson studied design under the likes of weaver and textile artist Jim Bassler and ceramics artist Adrian Saxe. "I did really well in school because I was always having fun," said Olson, who graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1986.

Olson said his design background -- particularly his focus on color and patterning -- later served him well as a residential architect with a client list that included artists Tim HawkinsonMarnie Weber and Jim Shaw. (He earned his master's degree in architecture at UCLA in 1989.) And it helped him in his decade-long stint as a Hollywood art designer.

Olson said his cinematic side career began by chance after he bumped into Italian artist and photographer Gusmano Cesaretti at a friend's 40th birthday party.

Cesaretti, who's worked as a visual consultant with filmmakers including Michael Mann, Marc Forster and Tony Scott, asked Olson, "'Do you want to design for film?'" "I said, 'Oh sure,'" Olson recalled. "Within a week I got a call and went to work on 'The Last of the Mohicans.'"

"Double Veil Forces of Nature" by Erik Olson.

That's when Olson's architectural and artistic training came into play.

"You had to be very acutely aware of what surfaces were doing with light, because that's what film is about," recalled Olson, who worked with production designer Wolf Kroeger on the movie. "And you had to be historically correct as to what those surfaces would be." (To recreate Fort William Henry in northeastern New York, for instance, he used a 18th century Corps of Royal Engineers handbook as a guide.)

Olson, whose screen credits include "Face/Off," "The Mask" and "Equilibrium," said art direction "put me into this mode where I really started seeing geometry."

Whether designing a Chinese antique shop or a Nazi-esque edifice for the big screen, he said, "I learned really quickly how to define the geometries to create that architecture -- not only... to create those details but then [determine] how the details would relate to each other."

Olson's interest in the visual vocabulary of mathematics is apparent in "Erik Olson: Eye Matters," particularly in his "Cycles of Life" series of abstract paintings. Developed on the tertiary alignment of a grid pattern, they feature interlocking circles and rectangles that represent "cycles of life and spheres of influence," he said.

"Cycles of Life Color Fields" by Erik Olson.

Olson described his photo "Lines, Block, Wall," which depicts an abandoned parking structure on Christmas Day, as his "response to a really clean space without clutter." Painted lines and a concrete divider split the plane into orderly shapes.

"The whole thing about photography is light on surfaces. So what's the next thing?" Olson asked. "I'm kind of in a reductive mode all the time. I want to get down to the essence [of things]."

Another focus in "Erik Olson: Eye Matters" is his lifelong fascination with light play. Many of the featured photos explore that subtle yet startling dance -- dawn peaking through a curtain of orchids, light bouncing off of chrome furniture, panes of glass reflecting a cloudy sky.

"Much of this work... is objectifying the quickly changing natural movement of sunlight that infuses the banal everyday with spontaneity," Olson writes in his artist statement for the exhibition. "Many of the ethereal images are there just for a few brief seconds, and provide a reminder of our own transitory nature."

"This approach... begins with a history but is alive to the moment as the images reveal themselves," he said. "The excitement of recognition spontaneously transforms the images to reveal the expression of this energy, joy."

"Shadows & Reflections Stamped" by Erik Olson.

"Two Lincolns One Guy," the earliest photo in Olson's current exhibition, reflects such a moment of artistic kismet. Olson walked out of a friend's house one day in 1971 to see a man using one car to jumpstart a nearly identical vehicle.

"I just snapped the shot," he said. Only later did he notice how the "V" created by the propped-open automobile hoods echoed the angular lines of the building behind them.

These days, Olson is constantly on the lookout for such coincidences. "When I see them, I jump on them," he said.

In his photograph "Shadows & Reflections Stacked," for instance, a pair of beach-goers walk their dogs across a glassy expanse of the wet sand, their bodies reflected in the water and shadowed in the sand. Seen from above, a pedestrian's legs seem to merge with a street light to form a fanged snake head in "Cobra Head Street Light," and a palm tree blends with a telephone pole in the equally playful "Palm Obscured."

Olson himself is a subject in some of the photos. His shadow can be glimpsed in "Double Veil Forces of Nature," in which the peaked outline of a pier intersects with two lacy ocean waves at low tide.

"Boarding the Bus at Speed" by Erik Olson.

And it features prominently in "Boarding the Bus at Speed," which he shot on a busy stretch of Highway 1 just north of Guadalupe. Although the cars and buses barreling past a wooden train trestle condensed into blurs, he realized, "My shadow was fairly crisp. It wasn't getting smeared."

"Even when I'm out shooting people, there's that quality" of connection, Olson said. "The [photos] I like are the ones where there's a response from one person to another."

Asked about the next step in his artistic evolution, Olson said he's moving toward portraits of artists.

"You look at a photograph and you see a person and you have an expectation based on how they look. And then you see them in a mirror and you get surprised," he explained. "You're experiencing a photograph in time."

"Lines, Block, Wall" by Erik Olson.
"Palm Obscured" by Erik Olson.
"Railing Surfers" by Erik Olson.

Top image: "Two Lincolns One Guy" | Photo: Erik Olson

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