Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

Alex Olson (American, b. 1978)

Short Story, 2011

Oil on linen

41 x 29 in. (104.1 x 73.7 cm)

Restricted gift of Emerge with additional support from Dr. Andrew J. Engel and Mrs. Jenna Feldman

Alex Olson makes work that alludes to the process of painting, using what she calls “stock language” or familiar gestures such as brushstrokes, scratches, scribbles, check marks, and “x”s whose meaning depends on context. According to the artist, her paintings deal with “how you read surfaces,” situating her within a long history of artists who explore the visual and physical impact of nonfigurative compositions on canvas. In this work, she seems to quote from artists such as Jasper Johns (American, b. 1930), Robert Ryman (American, b. 1930), and even Richard Tuttle (American, b. 1941), all of whom challenge the medium’s tradition of pictorial representation by treating the painting as a self-contained aesthetic object. Olson begins a painting with an all-over layer of what she calls “calligraphic babble” on which she engages in an intentional process of additive and subtractive mark-making—dragging, scratching, and scraping—that complicates the depiction of flatness and depth. While this painting initially suggests the back of a painting, a squiggle in the lower right corner, which Olson has integrated into the composition, recalls a traditional artist’s signature on the front of an artwork. Olson often incorporates vaguely familiar shapes that only hint at representation, complicating our understanding of what we are seeing.