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In 1998, artist Skot Olsen painted "Captain Obed Architeuthis," and introduced a figure into his work that has now become a recurrent, nearly obsessional motif. Captain Obed bobs in a row-boat, his head pinched between a rising sea and a descending sky. The background shoves Obed against the picture plane, a flattening the Captain's body can sustain, since there's no right arm to get in the way, only a stump. His cheek wears a chain of sucker-ring scars and he clenches scurvy-ravaged teeth, perhaps in the enjoyment of a small measure of power over his old tormentor: a sad little squid slops over the rim of the tin below his legs. Framed in the right-hand panel of the painting is Architeuthis itself, rendered beautifully and without affectation, a single tentacular club trailing out of view. The Architeuthis is as beautiful as Obed is ugly, fluidly and confidently painted, somewhat to the detriment of the Obed panel, which appears labored by comparison. It's as if Olsen painted the Capatin to justify painting a beautiful squid.
We're in Vengeful Ahab territory, and the two-panel device is appropriate for a grudge of Biblical proportions, echoing the old diptych format (twin-paneled, hinged paintings, traditionally religious in theme). The viewer will also think of the sequential panels of a comic book's narrative, and it's a natural association, given the form and Olsen's background as a trained comic-book artist, but the narrative is slippery. Was the little squid in the tin the offspring of Architeuthis, skimmed out by Obed for bait? The doors of the dock-side buildings are boarded shut: has the town been cursed and driven to ruin by a giant squid? (Obed's name may be a clue: Captain Obed Marsh was the man responsible for corrupting the town of Innsmouth in H. P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth.") Here's the really pressing question: is Architeuthis hovering in ammoniacal equipoise, or is he charging upstairs to kick Obed's ass again?
2: Only the Squid Die Young (Skot Olsen description here)
In 2002's "Only the Squid Die Young," A half-blind sailor sings into life the vision of a giant squid's harpooning. As Olsen's accompanying notes explain, "This is the first in a series of pieces about a fictitious giant-squid fishing industry. In this picture, an old salt sings a sea shanty about the birth of the industry." It's a truly inspired imaginative leap, and it allows Olsen to bridge the gap between some of the established patterns of his art, which merge the proletarian themes and blasted colors of American Works Progress Administration artists with an approach to human figures that recalls both cartoons and Surrealist grotesques, and the animal for which he so plainly feels an affinity. There remains, too, a strong element of divinity at work in the proceedings. The harpooned squid wears a crown and a man-colored skin, and the blinded sailor wears a tattoo on his forearm of a "Sea Monk," a legendary creature with a squid-like outline. Is Skot Olsen nodding to the odd preponderance of clergymen in Architeuthis' natural and cryptozoological history, a history that includes observations and anecdotes from Bishop Erik Pontopiddan of Norway, and The Reverend Moses Harvey of Newfoundland? Those learned fellows did much to coax the legendary kraken into scientific focus and record their appearances. Still, despite the fond anthropomorphism, the implied divine status and the inspired alt-historical narrative, Olsen keeps his squid separate, contained within a comic-book thought-cloud.
In 2003, Skot Olsen has produced no less than seven canvases with teuthid themes. "Land Lubber" might be Skot Olsen's self-portrait by proxy, the proxy being a sucker-scarred artisan who compulsively re-enacts the traumatic event by producing ship-and-squid vignettes in bottles. With no little psychological insight, Olsen evokes both the peculiar power of the giant squid's grip on his imagination and the odd process by which the actual memory of an event can be supplanted by the art derived from the memory: above the lubber's head, in place of the expected memory-balloon, hovers another squid sculpture in a bottle.
4: Black Water Harvest (Skot Olsen description here)
"Black Water Harvest" looks like the sort of epic, nicotine-stained mural you might find in an old New England town hall; it elaborates on the fictional giant squid industry introduced in "Only the Squid Die Young" with a host of detail and perspective shifts. There are, in fact, four distinct elements to take in: the scene of the squid harvest, a strip of Architeuthis-derived products, a trio of musicians and Olsen's annotations. The effect is aggressive and comic, though some of the humor is of the art-world variety and therefore not self-evident; art that requires explanatory texts ( to fortify the imagery or justify the artist's choices) has inspired much derision, but Olsen has found a way to simultaneously lampoon the trend and deepen his alternate history. It would all be too much to take in if Olsen didn't anchor the painting with the doomed squid's eye. It's the first thing the viewer's eye goes to, the principal point of entry, and it leaves you in the uncomfortable position of empathizing with a huge mollusk as it undergoes industrial processing.
Finally, Olsen's most recent squid painting, "St. Architeuthis" casts the animal as a munificent entity bestowing his grace upon a doomed sailor. The Saint arrives on a heavenly billow of cloud with an arm-corona load of holy accessories. Olsen now consistently paints his squid not with the realistic "Captain Obed Architeuthis" wash of red and maroon but with the same mottled pink of his human characters. Saint Architeuthis even sports a distinguished grey eyebrow. To judge from the harpoon clutched in one arm, it would appear that this Saint achieved martyrdom at the hands and by the iron-points of the giant squid fisheries, and might even be the ascended spirit of the crowned squid in "Only the Squid Die Young." By my sights this is Skot Olsen's sharpest squid yet, and not just because Architeuthis is, finally, occupying the center of a strong composition shorn of aesthetically distancing frames and thought-balloons. What's best about this painting is the unabashed affection and reverence that Skot Olsen now shows for his teuthid subject. "Saint Architeuthis" is a sly visual hymn sung by an artist who has given himself over to an unlikely muse's higher power.
Special thanks to Skot Olsen for granting permission to display his art along with this review.
Adam Eli Clem
November 17, 2003
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