Dennis Olsen's exhibition, "Fictive Portraits" was named by the San Antonio Express-News as one of "The best of 2011 visual art" in San Antonio 2011
Artist creates a rogue's gallery of 60 or so creatures
From the San Antonio Express News, see the link
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Over the past couple of years, the mild-mannered San Antonio printmaker and teacher has breathed life into a rogue's gallery of oddballs, misfits, weirdos and freaks of staggering strangeness.
These 60 or so creatures go by names like Drago and Christof and Tom, Dick and Harry. They even have abbreviated personal histories: “Though well into middle age, the Malinski twins cannot forget the fearsome gaze of their father” ... “In spite of the recent tracheotomy, Tom is still able to verbalize about living in a family with two half-wit brothers” ... “In her former life as a teacher, Edna delighted in getting the kids to form a rhythm band using kitchen utensils.”
The “Samplings” series of stark, black-and-white portraiture that has possessed Olsen since early 2009 gets a public showing for Contemporary Art Month titled “Fictive Portraits: Intaglios” at REM Gallery.
It's quite a break from the 69-year-old artist's formidable body of work of the past 30 years, characterized by somber seriousness, understated elegance, palpable intelligence, text fragments and rich color. Our aforementioned buddy George — and many of these characters seem relatively harmless — “sliced his hand on the trailer hitch and missed the WWA trials at the arena.”
“I've been known as a serious artist who does intellectual work,” says Olsen, a printmaker who received his art education at UCLA in the late '60s and has been a professor of art at the
University of Texas at San Antonio since 1981. “I've never really used humor in my work. I've never made a piece that was silly or goofy or frightening or dangerous. I don't think I've ever expressed sadness in a work.”
The epiphany, if we can call it that, came last April. A collector of world currency, Olsen was drawing in his studio, making marks on Mylar with grease pencil reminiscent of the engraving on banknotes. He's not sure, but believes George emerged first. (Some have commented on George's resemblance to the father of our country, but Olsen dismisses the idea.)
“I didn't start out thinking I would make portraits,” recalls Olsen, who also curated “Signs of Change: Bodo Korsig and
Catherine Lee” at the UTSA Satellite Space for Contemporary Art Month. “I wasn't planning to embark on a long series. I was just drawing, and this portrait developed. As all artists know, you start with a germ of an idea and it grows and grows. This one grew into George.”
He called to wife
Meredith Dean, also an artist and UTSA faculty member: “I said, ‘I have made the strangest drawing I've ever made.'”
Says Dean: “When I saw his first character appear — and he said that he didn't quite know what had happened, I knew that it was a significant breakthrough for him. These characters come with no preconception — they form themselves in the process of drawing.”
To explain his process, Olsen quotes his friend, the renowned American painter
James McGarrell, whose lush interiors and landscapes are about as far away from “Samplings” as art can get: “James says, ‘I discover my painting by working on it.'”
Indeed, Olsen begins each drawing “tabula raza, with a clean slate.”
“I try not to have an idea,” he explains, although he acknowledges banknote portraits from around the world — South America, the Middle East, Africa, “
Queen Elizabeth in all her iterations” — as occasional inspiration. “I might start with an eye, a nose, an ear. I keep drawing and things start to happen. One of the things I've always been interested in is masks, and the evidence of masks is strong in these works.”
As the series has progressed — “It's gotten harder, not easier,” says Olsen, “which is a good thing” — the artist has thrown roadblocks into his own path.
“I put down marks that seem irreconcilable,” he says. “I know they are not going to work, and the struggle to make them work is part of my method.
“After about a year, I wondered what would happen if I drew these upside down. The newest ones are all done that way, and I don't peek. Not peeking (turning them right side up) is what makes them so unconventional. I never want them to become formulaic. This is not anything close to formal life-drawing portraiture. I like the mystery, the shock.”
After lots of drawing, frottage (rubbing) and erasing, Olsen says, somewhat dramatically: “Then, there is a moment when a personality begins to appear.”
Perhaps this is Esmerelda, whose “fierce determination and vindictive nature ... is the secret of her success as a world-class croquet champion.” Or Henry, “a well spoken chauffeur with a curious interest in spelunking.”
The accompanying narratives, which are written on the gallery wall in pencil for the REM show, emerge after the drawings are completed. Olsen stresses that they are only one interpretation of a portrait — his — but not the only one. Viewers are free to invent their own stories.
“I really enjoy writing the narratives,” says Olsen, who has incorporated text into his work for many years. “It's almost as fun as doing the drawings. In fact, the narratives go through the same process. It's all very intuitive, my reaction at a particular moment.”
Through a process called Intaglio-type printmaking, which is nontoxic (etching requires acid), Olsen — co-founder in 1970 of the
Santa Reparata Graphic Art Centre in Florence, Italy, where he has spent his summers for more than three decades — makes prints in editions of 10.
“A lot of the drawings were made in Italy,” he says.
Printed on grayish, flecked, handmade Unyru paper stock from Thailand, the work has been included in 24 exhibitions and print shows in less than two years, winning some best-of-show awards. They have definitely struck a nerve in printmaking circles.
“I'm not sure where this is going,” Olsen says. “I didn't start out thinking it would be this elaborate or lengthy. I want each of the portraits to have something interesting about it — for me and the viewer.”
He pauses, then adds, “I have a poor memory for names, but I can remember all 60 or 70 of their names and most of their stories.”

“Fictive Portraits: Intaglios” remains on view at REM Gallery, 219 E. Park Ave., through May 6. Regular gallery hours are noon to 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and by appointment. Call 210-224-1227 or visit