Richard Martin Essay
Harold Olejarz - Life Imitates Art
The following essay was written by Richard Martin, former curator of The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in 1989 as an introduction to an unpublished book of images and text on my performances as living sculpture.
The odyssey of art and experience that Harold Olejarz creates is a performance art, but even more importantly it is a perplexing art, one that raises significant issues about the character of art. In venturing into the public, Olejarz offers art a wide realm. In vesting art with his own body and in creating the additional persona that narrates this book, Olejarz is creating a discourse within himself add within his art. More than just a diary of art's episodes, Olejarz provides a contemplative chronicle on the nature of being an artist from the a priori fact of being art.
For the public, Olejarz's declaration that "art imitates life" is an unceasing revelation and challenge. To one skeptical shopper in downtown Newark, his assertion may be sufficient, but to another observer, there is the question of whether art has to be something different, and even to the observer when Olejarz poses next to a lifelike (motionless, but superficially like reality) Seward Johnson sculpture, there is the further question of what is the criterion for imitating life. In each incarnation, Olejarz achieves an appearance distinguishable from daily life: there are specific properties of art in being made of wood (cubist wood, even) and stone and there is also a Monopoly-man distinction of the rubber-suited apparition of Olejarz. As much as likeness is determined and defined as one of the characteristics of Olejarz's work, difference is critical. After all, would the same pedestrians or museum-goers stop in their tracks if Olejarz were in some way differentiated? For the public, then, Olejarz may seem to pose some of the same Pygmalion puzzles offered by the Living Paintings or the early performance works of Gilbert and George. Yet in these instances, the context and tradition was art, not the free-roaming figure that Olejarz sets to city streets, shopping malls, college campuses, and the like to confront life more abruptly than in the "ready-made" art environs of museums and galleries. With no pedestal no classification as art, Olejarz poses and moves along sidewalks with an aplomb and distance. Is he, however, different from the public's point of view from the intrusive mimes that likewise trade silence for their slight distance from the real. They, too, wear costumes as does Olejarz. But the mime exists only for the duration of the performance; at the end he or she may not speak, but they amble into a different role the minute the act is played out. Olejarz's art is not exhausted as a time-performance; he changes poses in coordination with his onlookers; he responds in some cases to those who watch; and he is able to move along still being the creature-creation that he has been a moment before, whereas the mime skulks away like the deflated balloon of a holiday parade.
"One of us," said Sanford Schwartz of the empathetic reality of Watteau's Pierrot, or Gilles, offering the interpretation that the figure in the painting might seem like us and thereby to be most sensitive. For the viewer, Olejarz is not the supposedly inimical art of museums or galleries: he is the amalgam of Batman come to Gotham City, the chance to shake paws with Goofy at Disneyworld, and the celebrity glimpsed without mediation of camera or stage. If modern art is often intimidating to the general public and ridiculed by philistines, Olejarz offers no such threat. He placates and arbitrates, not menaces. In taking his art to the streets, he does so not with the epater les bourgeois attitude of Surrealism or the social reformation of the Futurists, but with a more didactic presence. Not antagonistic, but instead winning, Olejarz mingles with the public in a way that High Art seldom, if ever, does. In an era when art consumes with voraciousness the cultural conditions of contemporary life, Olejarz gives the public a taste of art and perhaps also gives art a tang of public exposure.
Yet the art that Olejarz makes is self-consciously art. It is derived from his sculpture of the late 1970s and I980s creating wood cube geometries with the mystic resonance of Meso-American pyramids and occult forms and blocks. Indeed, the literal transfiguration came about when the cubes were visited on the body as a sculpture for the living figure of Olejarz with the mystery and the mysticism of ingesting, investing his art, as it were, into and onto himself. What had rested on the ground in the sculptures attached itself to the body like a creation out of the dust of the earth. But Olejarz, a discerning art critic and historian as well as an artist, became thereby the subject of his work. One cannot forget that the artist is trapped inside the work, but there was always a presence inside the haunted architectural monuments that Olejarz created.
Moreover, his materials offer the same easy interface between the colloquial and High Art that his work now implies. Simple vernacular carpentry provides an easy notion of the wood chips that are used as the cubes of Olejarz's figure. Woodshop elements, they bear a familiarity, yet they speak of art as well for their easy translation into cubism as the best-known non-representational art of the century. Like the truth to materials of a sculptor such as Brancusi, Olejarz has reduced the tough lesson of a difficult art to comprehension for a broad audience. Not incidentally, many spectators seize upon the idea of cubism to explain Olejarz's wooden figure, not acknowledging that the figure before them is as much of the migrants to Oz as of the denizens of turn-of-the-century Paris. Cubism is a false explanation for the figure Olejarz presents, but a highly agreeable one and one in which a difficult art seems more accessible than a plain fantasy. In this, Olejarz acknowledges a predisposition of the observer to elect art over the real and the artist's magic in letting the spectator see what he or she wants to see.
Wood, though, is a plausible sculptural material, whether of a Trojan Horse (likewise testing a premise of art against its real military strategy) or of maquettes and other three-dimensional projection. Similarly, Olejarz's stone may not be of the Michelangelesque single piece, but the stone facing of the suit avows the nature of artistic materials. There is no mistaking these materials for Armani; they are of the primary matter of art, not life. Thus, there is an artistic matrix to the stiffness, to the assumption of a pose, and finally to the differentiation.1 Here, Olejarz is neither the mime nor Mickey Mouse; he is of the substance of art, however referential, and in that distinguishes this figure, living and moving, from the corporeal fact of living. Significantly, Olejarz is never lugubrious and his figure is not Marley's ghost or any other specter; he is startling enough to engage the spectator, but he is never as frightening as his literary counterparts or life's sinister complement.
In a painting characteristic in countless ways of the 1980s, Mark Tansey shows a reporter placing a microphone in front of the mouth of the Sphinx as if in interview. If the visual arts have long held unutterable secrets and been able to hear all obloquy and criticism about them (talking paintings and sculptures being exclusive to New Yorker and Mad Magazine cartoons and Ghostbusters II), Olejarz as a living figure often inside his figures becomes the sculpture through interaction and through the inevitable hearing of all remarks made of him. When Olejarz emerged from a limousine on Wall Street, one passerby remarked, "I saw that moron on Broadway half an hour ago." Not even like the artist attending his or her own opening there shielded by protocol, Olejarz confronts the criticism of his work as well. Though others have donned the suits, Olejarz remains his own primary performer. In that, he is victim and observer, the artist viewing the audience of his art as if in an infinite system of reflections. There is, of course, a "last word" the artist preserves in the text that accompanies these album-like photographs that describe the episodes. But here Olejarz is laconic and naive, telling the story in the first person (as opposed to Eleanor Antin's 1971-2 odyssey of the Hundred Boots that trekked across the country), but with an innocence about art and circumstance that is not Olejarz's own as an artist.
The tone of the narrative is curiously eighteenth century and takes us into the picaresque manner of Defoe and Fielding, but with the object lessons of Sir Joshua Reynolds. There is always something of the boulevardier that attaches itself to the text and images of this album: Olejarz demonstrates his credulous fascination with what others may say and do in response to his proposition of his costumed alter-ego as act. Rather, he has created a kind of defiant, art-asserting persona, akin to Penn and Teller as performers, demanding that the art be taken seriously, but also good-naturedly admitting of its small social transgressions. In the compl1ex hall of mirrors that shows us observer, sculpture, and artist-creator looking back at those looking at him, Olejarz has created an alter-ego narrator. By this literary convention, he can comment after the fact upon what he has achieved as an artist and what hi achieves in public dialogue.
Phantom within his own sculptures, Olejarz has devised a means to move among the constituents of art and its perception. The cavalier exchange that he offers between art and life and the casual means by which he engages and then surpasses immediate reactions sustain art's property to be different and in being different to aid our comprehension of that which is different and that which is our quotidian reality. If life gives vitality and art gives contemplation, Olejarz's art is animated reflection on and of art and life in which these doppelganging forces find themselves reconciling as plainly as the spectator on the street acknowledges that art is standing next to him or her on the sidewalk.