Demetrius Oliver: Sidereal
In Demetrius Oliver’s work from a few years ago one sees the young artist using his body as a site to investigate a number of issues. The most readily apparent of these concern notions of American identity. These self-portraits, all from 2004, show the artist in profile covered in chocolate frosting (Till), white frosting (Bust), or shown with a fatty Mohawk made of raw bacon (Seminole). These haunting images are at once seductive and repellant, ridiculous and deeply compelling. They show a strong sense of urgency and youthful fervor. In the five years since, the young artist’s work has matured in a number of remarkable ways. Throughout this development, Oliver has maintained the performative aspect of his work while skillfully honing his ability as a story teller. In creating these complex, poetic worlds Oliver taps into his varied interests and draws from a number of sources to patiently build a slower, more subtle narrative that functions on a variety of visual and conceptual levels.
The artist’s show at Rhodes, Sidereal, is a confluence of new work and work from three recent shows. The titles of the shows, Sidereal, Observatory, Firmament and Midnight’s Daydream give insight into the conceptual framework for Oliver’s work.i Each show takes its visual cues from astronomy as a way to expand the artist’s interest in, and investigation of, the practice of charting his relationship to the surrounding world. The large scale photograph, Moon, features a selection of large, blackened photography bulbs laid atop a flat image of the moon. The juxtaposition of photographing real objects (the bulbs) and the photographic image of a full moon is a subtle one. In Ember VI and Ember IX images are projected onto the curved surfaces of a tight cluster of light bulbs. The bulbs are seen held by the artist’s own hands in the void of space. The softly rounded, projected images are those of a rustic, wooden barn interior and a clean, modern workspace with a table, chairs, and a laptop.ii The sculpture, Telescope, is composed of a long tube made up of 48 plastic, five-gallon buckets and a slide projector that projects a still image of ocean waves into the opening of the end bucket. The projected image slowly rotates with each new slide. The still video animation Harmonic Spheres (a collaboration with Blanche Bruce), shows the back of the artist’s head enveloped in smoke, the image zooms in and out as it pans. These pieces share a common thread: the roles of objects, are they are understood in the known world, are shifted, juxtaposed, or exchanged with astral bodies. Among other paths, Oliver is exploring the Hermetic notion of the microcosm and the macrocosm: understanding the macrocosm (the universe) is linked to the understanding of the microcosm (oneself).
Almanac, a long frieze consisting of a series of small square photographs, is the embodiment of the artist’s broader poetic approach. These cropped, round images feature a series of intimate vignettes as seen in the reflections of tea kettles.iii The stage for these is the artist’s studio, complete big white walls, camera, tripod, extension cords, metal shelving units, and arrangements of photographic lights. Among the various players and props, the viewer sees stacks of Betty Crocker ready-made frosting, hammers, books, flashlights, oil lanterns, trumpets, strips of uncooked bacon, and finally the artist himself. The intentionality of the object’s placement is clear, and the images often feature the artist’s hand placing or holding an object just so. In one his hand is wrapped in bacon, in another he is seen holding a long, extension lighter under a teapot. In one image the camera is resting on a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and in another it sits on Hazrat Inayat Khan’s The Mysticism of Sound and Music. The constantly shifting cast of characters creates a sense of passing time along with the changes in the artist’s placement and clothing. Oliver appears at times dressed in long coat-tails, or in his every-day attire of jeans and sandals, and more often than not he is obscured in some way. The artist is often nearly out of frame, hidden by a full length mirror, or working inside a cardboard box. Each image features slightly different lighting; some appear super bright as if seen in daylight, and others appear to be taken late at night or in the early morning hours. The artist’s decision to rotate some of the images 90 or 180 degrees within the frieze highlights the topsy-turvy nature of the world being glimpsed. The additional changes in optical clarity of the images depend on the level of corrosion, condensation, or scratches on the reflective surfaces of the tea kettles. These shifts in focus remind us that we are directly observing the world, but by seeing the world reflected through the curved surface of the tea kettle, we are at least one or two steps removed.
In Oliver’s exhibition for Clough-Hanson Gallery he presents a varied collection of work that brings together his interests in art history, literature, astronomy, mysticism, music, and performance. The extraordinary level of openness found in his studio practice makes the critical argument that Oliver’s work cannot and should not be pinned down to just a handful of concerns. The poetic combinations of his particular influences and interests provide a new model for seeing and living in the world. The many paths of this young artist’s practice parallel those of an explorer finding his way, seeing the world with eyes wide open.
i Observatory at D’Amelio Terras in New York and Firmament at Inman Gallery in Houston, both exhibitions were held in 2008. Midnight’s Daydream was a three person show with Titus Kaphar and Wardell Milan II at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2007.
ii These projected images are the artist’s studio spaces at the Steep Rock Residency in Connecticut in 2008.
iii The artist’s collection of teakettles grew out of 2004 exhibition, Conductor, at Project Row Houses in Houston that included an installation with wide array of tea kettles on hotplates, all whistling at once.
Hamlett Dobbins is the Director of Rhodes College’s Clough-Hanson Gallery.
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