Mike Olin was born in Pasadena, CA in 1971. He moved to Bushwick, Brooklyn in 1999.
I believe the best you can do as an artist is to be yourself. Nothing is as original as the individual and your self is the most you can offer. We have our own sets of experiences, no one is quite like us.
The background of the self is the universe. I want all persons to be able to respond to my work, and am interested in the forms involved in this.
That said, I am working in the field of the history of art making, of painting, and gladly participate.
Interview with Mike Olin
Questions by Emily Burns
Hi Mike! Can you tell us a bit about your background and what motivated you to become an artist?
I was born in Pasadena, California but mostly raised in San Diego. My dad was an athlete/bible scholar and my mom was more of a maker, really good at sewing and would re-upholster our furniture. There was zero interest in fine arts in my family, it was pretty much church, sports and tv, shows like M*A*S*H and Wheel of Fortune…I was a big fan of The Price is Right and Land of the Lost. I drew a lot as a kid and at the ages of 4 and 5 I won an art contest with the Pasadena Star Newspaper for drawings I made of cars. In my later high school years I took as many art classes as I could and knew I liked making art, but I didn’t meet an artist until my sophomore year in college when I had a class with Jim Skalman, a local conceptual installation artist. After that, making art and showing it at least seemed like a possibility.
Can you walk us through the stages of planning and making a painting?
I stretch linen over supports using copper tacks on the sides. I spend a lot of time gessoing and sanding. Next I start attaching objects. First I sprinkle mustard seeds, then string, then other bits of stuff that I have collected. There is a good amount of chance in the beginning but after awhile the paintings sort of start developing on their own, almost telling me what to do next. I work on several paintings at once and at different stages of development. Sometimes I have a little bit of a plan. Either way I try to stay open and have fun.
Is drawing a part of your process?
Yes, I have a stick that I dip in paint to make lines, squiggly spiral lines. I also draw in sketchbooks, but that work isn’t always directly related to the paintings.
Your paintings often include collage of small bits of stickers, papers, or other ephemera. Where does this material come from? Is there any significance to it beyond aesthetic value in the work?
I moved from San Diego (very clean) to Bushwick, Brooklyn in 1999 (unbelievably dirty) when it was still semi-industrial and had this abandoned feel. There were feral dog packs! I would walk around and see trash that was just so foreign to me, random and often flattened by all the big trucks blowing through. I started selecting and collecting it and making what I call “Trash Packages”. Over the years the trash started to get attached to the paintings, and painting over it or with it became this fun struggle. Some objects have personal significance, some not at all. I also began using some of the peripheral things in the studio, off-cuts and discarded things, used palette paper and stray marks. Most recently I began adding stickers, some of which I’ve had since my youth.
Can you talk a bit about the type of effect you are trying to create with the surface of your paintings?
In the surface of Monet’s water lily paintings one can see, all at once, reflected clouds in the sky, the lilies on the water surface and some bits below the water surface. I am interested in this idea of seeing many things at once and letting the painting surface be a jumping off point. For me it is kind of a cubist idea where the viewer can approach the painting in many ways: abstraction, landscape, surface texture, reflected light, like an object, like deep space or shallow space, a pinball game, a face or even an implied narrative.
Much of your work contains a characteristic gradient effect. Is there a singular reference for this image?
Ha, there actually is. Before I left for NYC I would sometimes drive to the desert by myself after a restaurant shift and sleep outside. One morning I woke up to a low intense sun and right by my face was this little shallow hole in the sandstone, the size and depth of a fingertip. The light described this tiny space in such a simplified way that I did a sketch of it right there in my sleeping bag. I went home and did some gouaches and have been using gradients like that since. One nice thing about gradations is that they sort of challenge absolutes, showing that most things are more nuanced than either/or.
What media or materials are you most drawn to?
I was initially drawn to landscape painting, especially the romantic kind, but I also wanted to be an artist that pushed and challenged culture and expanded the idea of art. Then the more I learned about art the more I realized that the idea of “what can art be” was a question that had already been answered by artists a generation or two before me. This freed me up to focus on painting. Painting is an object, an object with a long tradition, and is actually this distinct thing that many people already know how to look at. That helps. Oil paint fits into my working process the best, and I like how it smells.
Do you use any reference materials when working?
Some paintings have direct references, like from a pinball game I played in high school. From time to time I paint the Big Dipper and I always have to look up the image so I can get the stars right so they can come close to resonating the same way the real ones do. I use previous work I’ve done too, ideas and things I’ve felt are successful get folded in.
How do you title your paintings?
EJ Hauser told me that titles are a great chance to communicate. I like that as a goal, but often titles are pragmatic because I don’t want to force it, or sometimes they just arrive last minute. I do keep a list of potential titles, but they have to fit just right, most of them are waiting in the wings.
What have been some of the biggest influences on your life and your work thus far?
Traveling and reading and friends have all shaped me. The outdoors, the indoors, New York City, I love the Met museum. Science, history, music, I want to be open to influence at all times. I feel if I get into specifics I will never stop typing! Ok, I will try. The ideas of these broad thinkers like the scientist Rupert Sheldrake with his theories on Morphic Resonance and Formative Causation have really informed my thinking and how I perceive the world. His good friend Terence McKenna is also a supreme pleasure to listen to, I enjoy the scope of his research and ideas.
What is a typical day like for you?
I get home from my job and spend a few hours in my studio every weekday. Then dinner with my wife and maybe watch a show or two together or more studio. Saturdays are often studio days or extra-curricular days while Sundays are usually lazy and also reserved for playing with my team in the Williamsburg Softball League.
Who are some of the artists that you look at the most often or most recently?
Recently I’ve been enjoying looking at the Albert Bierstadt’s in the American Wing at the Met. One of the first artists that really really struck me was Bruce Nauman, just stripped-down powerful and psychological. Early in grad-school Elizabeth Murray visited my studio and I was floored by how insightful she was, the things she noticed, it was like magic. That experience taught me that some people really are paying attention, that painting is a direct language and to trust even the tiniest of decisions I was making as worthwhile and communicative.
What type of studio scenario do you need to get work done?
My studio is in my house and that is my preference. I make long music playlists on Spotify for my studio time. Sometimes it is just quiet too. I love working under natural light and I enjoy having plants around, they have this spirit in their form that is a yearning reach toward light - they are like my cheering section.
Is there anything that significantly supports or destroys your groove or energy in the studio?
It seems much of the time I spend in the studio is just “looking time” and there is not much of a groove. It’s more of an accumulation of thought before I make moves, so interruptions are rarely a big deal. My wife, Joy Curtis, is a great artist and her studio is also in our house, it’s nice to potentially get her opinion on work when she is around.
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
I read the New York Times and the New Yorker. Recently the writer Ann Patchett was mentioned in an intriguing conversation on the radio and then a couple days later I found a book of American Short Fiction on the sidewalk in front of my house – edited by Ann Patchett! NYC can be special like that, the serendipity (so I am currently reading and enjoying that book). I recently read some books that were on Obama’s reading list as president - I really dug Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage about the Lewis and Clark expedition was also fun, I am a sucker for exploration tales.
What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of being in the studio?
I have music playlists I make on Spotify. Recently I’ve been trying to catch up to today’s pop, which can be a blind spot at times. I love live Grateful Dead. Ty Segall, Bob Marley, Two Chains… it can’t be too dancey, cause then I will start dancing and not working…
How important is the place where you live to your studio practice? This could include geographic location, city, neighborhood, community, etc.
New York City plays a real role in my paintings. The trash acts kind of like a New York City time capsule, but I feel there is this other NYC vibe that appeals to me, the way so many surfaces have been defiled and then scrubbed and written on and re-coated. I think seeing graffiti everywhere seeps in, and then there is the half-assed way some things are “repaired”, creative littering, the struggle, etc., I love it. I also very much feel shaped by growing up in southern California and its natural beauty. I was lucky to see so many gorgeous sunsets over the ocean. The daylight in so-Cal is so clean and white, but also golden at times, whatever it touches, any color, just glows.
Bushwick is quite a hyped neighborhood these days, not quite as exotically dirty as before, but I still really like it and the community of artists it holds. It’s wonderful to have so many galleries, studios and friends in walking distance.
Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
My aunt Nona gave me relationship advice “It’s not about finding the right person but being the right person”. (I interpret this to mean that relationships take work). Now that isn’t directly studio advice, but I have found that it is good to have your life in enough order that you get optimal time in the studio.
Do you have any other news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
I will be in a group show at Yui gallery in the Lower East Side in February. It is called “Flower Sermon” and is curated by the awesome Jennifer Sullivan. I’m real excited to be in it!
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us!
My pleasure, thank you for looking at my work!
To find out more about Mike and his work, check out his website.