After two L.A.-based millennial women — one a visual artist, the other a curator — met in 2018, they bonded over their mutual interest in art of many genres. The curator soon began collaborating on an installation of paintings by the artist, Katherina Olschbaur. Their intent in the exhibition was to address and challenge cultural myths regarding gender, especially patriarchy, in our political and social world while appropriating images from traditional European art.
The visual artist Olschbaur, originally from Austria, and the curator Allyson Unzicker, from Southern California, were both passionate about painting, film, theory and literature. This commonality helped cement their artistic relationship.
Olschbaur and Unzicker, the latter, associate director and curator at UC Irvine, soon began working on the exhibition Dirty Elements, which would draw on themes from classical artworks, while transforming these pieces into what she calls “sensual spaces of erotic delight.” The exhibition, featuring eight large oils by the artist, opened in January at UC Irvine’s University Art Gallery, with several paintings deriving inspiration from mythology, religious and historical artworks.
As Olschbaur explains, “In my twenties, I saw Velasquez, Goya and Manet at the Prado and other museums, the Gentileschi [an Italian baroque painter] show in Rome, and artworks in London. These paintings deeply affected me in terms of form and representations of hierarchies and textures, and I tried to bring their atmosphere into the DNA of my practice.”
Unzicker adds, “Art history is embedded in Katherina’s consciousness. She utilizes these histories and compositions, looking to the works of old masters as inspiration to illuminate her own narratives. In her studio, she has images printed of historical paintings and monographs to look at for inspiration.”
Yet the uninformed viewer might not notice the classical references in her vibrantly colored pieces (all created in 2019), as a cursory look reveals artworks featuring sultry and provocative females alongside often-despondent men. Therefore, a study of Unzicker’s essay accompanying the show, “Petals in the Mud,” is critical to understand the significance and iconography of Olschbaur’s work.
The signature painting in Dirty Elements, inspired by the 1513 woodcut “Aristotle and Phyllis” by Hans Baldung Grien, features a female captor subduing a male, as two other figures gaze at the spectacle. Unzicker explains in her essay: “Grien’s tantalizing work depicts both Phyllis and Aristotle nude, with Phyllis garnishing a whip and riding sidesaddle atop Aristotle. Aristotle, who believed women to be inferior to men, is pictured on all fours, wearing merely a bridle and reins.”
In “Road Trip,” a nude woman lies seductively on her back against the hood of a gleaming sports car. The female figure is “consciously self-aware” and not an object of desire, as Unzicker writes. As Olschbaur had conveyed to her that the film Crash (1996) by David Cronenberg was one of her favorites, Unzicker realized how relevant the movie was to “Road Trip.” She then wrote in her essay about how the death drive and eroticism are bound together.
The painting “Ecstasy” features a poised angelic female floating above a prone male who is partially underground. Unzicker writes about this work: “In religious iconography, saints are often depicted pointing, as a sacred symbolic gesture; yet here the angel’s finger points off into the unknown, as if signaling condemnation.” Olschbaur adds, “I am interested in concepts of devotion, submission, adoration and worship in a broader sense. So, in some way I approach religion from an erotic or ecstatic point of view.”
Another piece in this show, “Sub Red,” depicts a portly man wearing a glove and socks, while lying lifelessly on the floor. Unzicker writes: “Olschbaur weighs in on the art historical canon by implying a scene of violent sexual aftermath, with her title implicating the figure’s role as a submissive.” The artist’s “Into the Open” illustrates a woman falling off a horse, while a tornado appears nearby. The curator writes, “Horses are a common motif in Olschbaur’s practice, where they symbolize strength and power while also connoting unbridled passion and sexuality.”
“Liaison” features three androgynous figures, with one person tying up another. During a tour of the show, Unzicker explained that this artwork depicts a kind of torture scene, with one figure subverting another. (She added that we need to subvert patriarchy.) Olschbaur’s two other works in this alluring exhibition are “Me, Him or the Angel” and “Vision (or how I became part of society),” with the latter displaying a woman sitting on a man.
As significant of an aspect of Dirty Elements, explained Unzicker in our interview, was the process employed to conceive and execute it and their approach to working together. “I would often reference or share something with her to stimulate the conversation and to see where our interests overlapped and intertwined. Often in response, she would make drawings and send them back to me. She too would send me content that she was thinking about while making the work. We spent hours in conversation and studio visits prior to the show. I attempted to put her work into language, which is not a simple task. I wanted to ensure that what I was writing was an honest and direct accompaniment to the work rather than a direct interpretation.”
She also described an underlying theme of the show: “If we cannot escape patriarchy as we cannot escape language, women must continually challenge and subvert these roles and myths.”
Toward the end of her essay, Unzicker writes, “‘Dirty Elements’ contemplates a space between seduction and malaise, beyond the silent surface of the canvas.” She then elucidated this statement: “The surface of a canvas is literally silent; however the paintings engage a psychological space that moves beyond material alone.”
Dirty Elements is on view at UCI’s University Art Gallery through March 14; Tue.-Sat., noon-6 p.m.; uag.arts.uci.edu.
Katherina Olschbaur’s paintings are also available at Nicodim Gallery in Los Angeles and in Bucharest, Romania.