Aug 06, 2010

By Robert Powers

The world that Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf wants you to see is one completely devoid of smiles. Largely focusing on disaffected creatures lurking behind a curtained suburbia, his recently opened solo exhibition of staged-photos (plus one short film) pushes hard to void viewers of any and all emotion.

Unnamed as a whole though split into four thematic groups - "Grief," "Rain," "Hope" and "Hotel" - Olaf's solo show could have easily been titled A Day Without Designer Medication given the sense of suspended malaise he instills. Carefully dolled up in period costumes (think: 1950s US deprived of its propagandistic sheen), Olaf's mostly Nordic-looking models are lit and positioned in such a way that allows them to exist as characters seemingly in the midst of coming to terms with how empty, trapped and shallow their lives are.

In one of the "Rain" photos, an old woman stands waiting inside an Americana barbershop for a rainstorm to pass outside; she's sporting a newly cropped hairstyle while barber sits listlessly in a chair behind her. Lit in a dull and tepid way, both look painfully bored. Both also look like the rain has given (or forced upon) them time to dwell on who they are, why they are there and what they have left to make of their lives.

Olaf's handful of "Hotel" photographs take aim at a group of disparately young and slender women, lavishly taken care of and left alone to sulk in baroque-styled posh hotels in Milan, Moscow, Paris, and Kyoto, which (in Olaf's world) are places you basically send (then later rendezvous with) mistresses. They do not look happy. One displays an obviously silicon-enhanced chest. They all look like they know they're dead inside.

From their dyed-hair heads to their satin-slipper adorned toes, Olaf's mistresses look the part of objects waiting to please, but whether it's a lack of numbing illicit substances or just a trip down memory lane (or even an introspective journey into an aged future), they're betrayed by facial expressions that nakedly evince how far removed they really are from a world not replete with ersatz miens.

In "Grief," housewives are seen alone in their homes, dressed as if ready for a socialite's dinner party and calmly sitting behind drawn curtains or at a dinner table designed for an entire nuclear family. They are each shedding a single and silent tear. The exhibition's one short film accompanies the "Grief" section and shows the forlorn housewives in relative inaction, slowly and meekly meandering about their spacious abodes with nothing to do but quietly pine as they listen to a radio broadcast announcing the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Expertly lit and shot, the video could be easily mistaken for a commercial ad if the film's static-y and harrowing audio were to be muted.

A commercial vein runs throughout Olaf's exhibit, which is not unexpected given that he has worked as a photographer for the likes of Mi-crosoft, Nokia and Levi's. A discerning viewer could easily picture Olaf's models clad in designer clothing or poking keys on a cutting tech product all while affecting ad-friendly smiles.

This may very well be the most chilling aspect of Olaf's work given that he is ultimately successful in instilling a sense of numbness in his viewers. In other words, Olaf knows exactly how to get inside your head. Once inside, one assumes (in the case of his commercial work) that his goal is to implant the name of a product or slogan. With his photo exhibit, it's not entirely clear what his intention is. He gets inside our heads, but what is he planning to do once he gets there?