Henrik Olesen


at Studio Voltaire


This exhibition’s title, “Studio Voltaire Presents Mr. Knife and Mrs. Fork,” ascribes the work to the nonprofit space hosting the show, a choice consistent with Henrik Olesen’s usual evasion of identity and authorship, and the more pointed in this case because the work is explicitly personal. Previously, Olesen (b. 1967 in Esbjerg, Denmark; lives and works in Berlin) has catalogued artworks depicting varying degrees of homo-sociability, or dug up forgotten tales of punished homophilia, in order to upend prevailingly heterosexual historical narratives. The recent exhibition comprised minimal interventions that resisted the presumed neutrality of their context.

Visitors entered by three stairs made of painted plywood (a permanent gallery fixture), to which Olesen appended plywood beams that appeared unassumingly structural but were not. He’d tossed a sock underneath the stairs, where it could be seen as a whimpering reference to Acconci’s Seedbed, or as a suggestion of the artist’s hasty retreat. Mostly, it was a sock. Inside the gallery proper were three pieces of wood, declared by the artist to be portraits of his mother, his father and himself. Portrait of my mother is an upright plywood beam labeled with painted handwriting; Portrait of my father is a slightly taller plywood rod with a roughly headlike jar on top. The wood-as-parent symbolism is both elemental and slack.

Self-Generation is an almost 8-foot tree branch leaned erect against the wall; stripped of its living substance, the branch’s anxious differentiation from its plywood “parents” is moot. In addition to the wood figures, “Mr. Knife and Mrs. Fork” are manifest as bits of plastic cutlery, stashed in a wholesale Doritos box.

As in his earlier work, the normative social narrative was represented by mainstream news. Papa-mama-ich consisted of 32 unframed collages made with relatively recent editions of the Daily Mail, laid out on tables. In its natural state, the London tabloid’s banal vulgarity and chummy tone are funny; Olesen doesn’t much alter this mood by cropping out the images and highlighting some areas of text, seemingly arbitrarily. He prints his own texts over the newsprint, using various fonts he finds on the Internet, some standard and some evocative of illuminated manuscripts. The letters of the most notable font are made of etched nudes; the sexual-cum-sacred type gives the words a literal and figurative body and weight.

Writing mostly in the first person, the artist reveals a fear of castration and an inability to comprehend his own body. Olesen is queer, and excluded as such from the Freudian narrative with which he’s dealing; it is obvious he feels doubly lacking. One running script begins NO FATHER and then lists a number of body parts that seem to have gone missing, beginning with LEGS and ending, after making steadily sexualized progress, with ANUS. The words themselves break down, skirting illegibility. Articulating the impossibility of realizing bodily integrity, Olesen also tests the limits of cultural memory.

Photo: Henrik Olesen: From the series “Studio Voltaire Presents Mr. Knife and Mrs. Fork,” 2009, collage, 113⁄4 by 161⁄2 inches; at Studio Voltaire.