Mimi Olsen's miniature worlds of enchanment
New York — Of the various types of "magic" practiced by artists in the pursuit of their art, the least- admired in the kind that transforms everyday reality into miniature wolrds of enchantment and delight. We tend to view such art as trivial and minor, good enough for children's books and fairy tales, but not worthy of serious consideration.
But even once in a while an artist comes along whose magical transmutations ring true, and whose art, while still not of the highest order, does have enough toughness and integrity to warrant our respectful attention.
Such is the case with Mimi Vang Olsen, a selection of whose delightful painting of people at home and of animals is on view at the Smith Gallery here.
Among these works are some remarkable family portraits which include not only all the family members, but every single item of furniture, crockery, silverware , etc., owned by the family as well.
And then there are the animals. These are mostly cats and dogs, although a few other animals -- included a delightful guinea pig -- have been included for good measure.These are, in every sense of the world, animal portraits, for they record the physical and personality characteristics of each animal with such precision that we would recognize them from their portraits should we ever meet.
But there is nohting cute or sentimental about these paintings. If anything, they have a tart and crisp quality which decourages whimsicality.
What gives these paintings their special strength is the obvious affection the artist has for people, animals, and household clutter -- and the great delight she takes in painting them. Every inch of her rich and complex canvases is lovingly designed, and every detail is carefully delineated -- not only as form but as portraiture. If a flower pot is included in a family scene we know that that flower pot actually existed and that it looked exactly as it appears in the picture. And if a loft is portrayed from above with its entire contents -- human animal, vegetable, and mineral -- laid out, we know that that is precisely how everything looked at the time the painting was made. Even the floors in her various family portraits were obviously carefully copied from the originals.
And yet there is no feeling of disorder or confusion. The dozens, sometimes hundreds, of details all take their proper place in her precisely plotted compositions.
The reason for this is twofold: exquisite craftsmanship and consistency of technique, and the ability to transform cluster of very specific and unrelated objects into visually fascinating overall pattern and design. Olsen paints as lovingly and with as much attetion to surface richness as did any 19th-century lady working on a quilt or a piece of lace. Quilts, lace, and patterned rugs, as a matter of fact, often play prominent roles in her paintings.
Even her talent for composition under- scores her flair for patterning. The flair is so strong that she can make the laws of perspective do her bidding by opening up little nooks and crannies of pictorial space with absolutely could not exist in real life. Buildings twist, walls tilt at precarious angles, fences and chairs stretch in impossible directions, and lamps sit comfortably on tables whose legs meet the floor at a diagonal.
And yet, in a wonderfrully mad and delightful way, it all makes perfect pictorial sense. We accept without question the fact that the laws of gravity and perspective have been suspended, and don't worry at all about how anything can remain upright at such impossible angles.
Here again, her design abilities have pulled her through. Every one of her paintings is built upon a complex system of checks and balances. For everything that moves to the right, she has something else leaning to the left. Colors balance textures, and complex details balance large open areas. Nothing is left to chance.
Remarkable as thes qualities are, it is her ability to precisely characterize individual people, animals, and things which really sets her apart from the large number of artists who do this kind of work. "Emily and Her Slipper" is not a pictur of any dog, but of a very particular dog. And everything else in the painting has that same precise identity. Her cat portraits tickle my fancy because she has caught the feline temperament as well as anyone. The two cats in "Picasso, Putz, and Victor" are very different in character, while Victor the guinea pig looks, I'm certain, exactly as he is depicted.
I don't want to leave the impression that this is great or important art. It isn't, but it is delightfully honest work which has a great deal more going for it than first meets the eye. In the truest sense of the word, this is "magical" art of great truth and simple beauty.