Studio Visit: Erik Olson

January 31 2016

Critic Jerry Saltz once wrote that “Painting gives us permission, it doesn’t ask for it, it not only explores consciousness, it changes it.” The work of Canadian artist Erik Olson begins within the two-dimensional confines of the canvas, and with an enthusiastic use of color and abstraction of perspective, explores the reality of our perception. His portraits remember subjects with the abstraction of a glance or a memory, often reduced to a tangle of brushstrokes in a field of color. We spoke with Olson to learn more about his process, work, and relationship with color.

Hometown: Calgary, Canada

Current Location: Düsseldorf, Germany 

How do you take your coffee? Cowboy coffee 

What’s your Sunday ritual?  Soothing my Kater with the New York Times.


Let’s start at the beginning, how did you begin painting professionally? 

I’ve always made drawings but it was around the time that I got my first job, painting houses, that I also started trying to put paint to canvas. That summer I found a love for the medium – it’s transformative potential – and I’ve been focused on it ever since. 


Were you raised in a particularly artistic environment?

There were always paper and pencils around the house. When I was a kid, color was really important to my Mom but my Dad is color-blind so it seemed like we were always talking about color or the lack of it. We moved around a lot when I was young, Africa, Boston, Canada, but I kept drawing. In a way I think I always wanted to become a painter. I was always working on it; I just haven’t stopped.


Some brilliant people have come out of your alma mater, Emily Carr—Neko Case, Douglas Coupland, Terence Koh. What was it like to study there? 

 When I was 18 years old I moved out West to study in Vancouver at Emily Carr. Definitely a formative experience for me but it also took a while to find my bearings. It was a time when everyone seemed to have moved on from painting, photography and process based-conceptual art seemed to be what was encouraged. Yet I was just downright interested in painting. I never took a ‘how-to-paint’ class or anything but I began studying it on my own. On the rainy days I’d hide away in the library with books on Lucian Freud and Matisse. I learned a lot there but it was over the next few years, traveling to New York, London, Italy and later India where I really found my voice as a painter.


Your first solo show was held in an abandoned gas station, correct? How did that come about?

In 2007 I had been living in Harlem, New York, but came back to Canada to attend a residency at the Banff Centre, it’s this great artist residency up in the mountains there. I’d just finished a large series of paintings and was looking for a space to exhibit them. I’d never had a show before but I suddenly felt really ready. I came across this amazing old abandoned gas station that had most recently been used as a rental shop named ‘IDEAL Rentals’. I sent the owners an email, thinking I’d never hear from them and to my surprise they offered to let me use the space for next to nothing. As soon as I got the keys I began doing a very DIY renovation of the place, gutting the inside, pulling out fake wood walls, installing new lighting and painting the inside white. The final touch was painting over the ‘Rentals’ part of the sign, leaving only ‘IDEAL’. It became this wonderful incubator space where my friends and I learned the ins and outs of putting together art exhibitions. 

How would you describe your style of painting?

I don’t think about style while I work but I do have a certain process and way of thinking that I use with the paintings. I paint what I become familiar with; people, friends, places I know. I’m interested in reality and the representation of it. I chase after the sites and situations that interest me most and then I let the work flow from that. I look at the world, I look at the specifics and from that I take over and allow myself to play. I tune my colors higher than in nature: I am not trying to make an image that is realistic or photographic. I try to use color and images to express what it is like to think and to feel. I paint animals, people, places – real things – but it’s more an internalized vision. 


I’m interested in your study of art history especially; your work seems to have such a direct connection to the traditions of color field painting and cubism without feeling derivative or stale. Do you have thoughts on what accounts for this?   

While I was motorcycling through India in 2010, I read ‘The Living Tradition’ by the painter K.G. Subramanyan and it had an impact on me. His writing explores the idea that it’s possible to maintain a cultural tradition and yet allow it to grow and change by merging with outside influences. 

It’s something that stuck with me and it gave me a lot of confidence to take the things that I’m interested in – from history, lived experience or wherever – and combine them with other influences. I greatly admire the Canadian color field artist Jack Bush. When I first looked at his work, it made me think, I recognize this, I know what to do with this. So I took aspects of that and combined it with other influences, things I’d learned from Lucian Freud for example. I learned to use color to create a sort of open free space within my paintings, a place you can enter into… I work with images but it is color that puts me most at ease in its evocative, suggestive and flexible interpretations. I look at a lot of art – from the present and the past – but I combine these ideas with things from my life, things I’ve seen. I like this idea that if you take something from the past, combine it with something from the present you’ll end up with something new.


We caught you on the way to Calgary from Germany to prepare for a show in New York – there is a motion in your life that seems to be reflected in your choice of subjects and the manner in which you portray them. Do you have thoughts on your relationship with motion and capturing it in two dimensions?

I’ve done a lot of traveling in my life and so I think this idea of motion and change has always been in mind. I’m interested in movement and speed but for me the paintings have less to do with physical motion. I’m not trying to make a nude descend the staircase. I’m more interested in how we think about issues of identity, how we define self and how we visualize ourselves and others. I think the Hindu sculptures I saw in India had a huge influence on my portraiture for example with the way the work can powerfully depict multiple attributes in one image. 

What’s next for you?

I recently finished a year of studying at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf as a guest student and I just moved into a new studio in the city here where I’m preparing for upcoming exhibitions. Currently I’m putting the final touches on new paintings for group exhibitions in Düsseldorf as well as New York City. On March 11 I have a solo exhibition of new large scale portraits opening at Barbara Edwards Contemporary in Canada.

You can find Olson’s work on his website, and at Barbara Edwards Contemporary in Toronto Canada beginning March 11th. 

Levi Wedel is a photographer living in Calgary, you can see more of his work on his website