Thursday, February 18, 2010

Shelf Life: Flowerhead by Olaf Hajek

Posted By on Thu, Feb 18, 2010 at 4:53 PM

GENRE: Oversized, full-color monograph

THE PITCH: Olaf Hajek’s painted illustrations are a hot commodity amongst magazines, appearing everywhere from the New Yorker to National Geographic. Flowerhead collects some of this editorial work and presents it with a selection of his personal work.

THE DRAW: Flowerhead is dominated by stunning uses of color and bewildering combinations of image. “Black Antoinette” reimagines the Queen with pitch black skin and hair stuffed with flowers, insects, a bird, and color-field flourishes. "Masked Girl" covers a woman’s chest with black and grey tattoos of botanical etchings and flat, incongruously bright dots of turquoise and orange.

INFLUENCES: “I have always soaked up the things that touched me on the most basic level – powerful, immediate images like naive art, Art Brut and primitive expression. When I look at American folk art, Indian miniatures or Mexican mythology, for example, I find myself spellbound by the sheer force and imagery of their simple depictions, a visual language unconcerned with perspectives or realistic parameters,” Hajek says in the preface.

SURFACE LEVEL: Some of these acrylic paintings are on canvas, but they are just as often on cardboard and wood, occasionally changing the texture to the work. Wood grain is visible in some otherwise flat swaths of color. Cardboard occasionally peeks between two hurried, broad strokes of paint.

IMPERFECTION: Aside from the “naive” art that Hajek mentions in the preface, he was also influenced by an art-school assignment to paint with his fingers. That tactile relationship to the paint clearly influences his work today. The paintings in Flowerhead often look hurried and fresh while being underpinned by a complex, precise balance of space.

From Flowerhead: The Illustrations of Olaf Hajek, copyright Gestalten 2010
  • From Flowerhead: The Illustrations of Olaf Hajek, copyright Gestalten 2010

FACE TIME: Hajek's commercial work rarely clashes with his personal paintings, but recognizable faces occasionally interrupt the fluid, dreamlike anonymity of his other portraits. A painting for Atlanta’s Paste magazine featuring Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart in a landscape of highway signs seems out of place without the accompanying article. A text-dominated spread for Herman Miller Magazine, on the other hand, becomes more surreal without the original context. The detachment causes you to imagine what sort of article this image could possibly be illustrating, evoking outlandish fantasies without resolving the question.

RECURRING CHARACTERS: Faces and themes reoccur throughout Hajek’s illustrations, like manifestations of psychological concerns. Marie Antoinette comes across as a minor obsession; her image recontextualized by the varying objects in her massive hair or the arrangement of her landscape. In “Antoinette,” her head lies parallel to a fluorescent horizon. It’s only after glancing at the image for awhile do you realize that two grey lines cutting through the painting are meant to be the sides of a waiting guillotine.

From Flowerhead: The Illustrations of Olaf Hajek, copyright Gestalten
  • From Flowerhead: The Illustrations of Olaf Hajek, copyright Gestalten

BOTTOM LINE: Commercial and editorial illustrations rarely, if ever, reach this level of uncompromised artistic integrity. Hajek reaches into seemingly disparate worlds, like the flat jungles of Henri Rousseau or hand painted signs of West Africa, and pulls out coherently surreal visions. Flowerhead is a book that blooms.

Flowerhead by Olaf Hajek. Gestalten. $60. 144 pp

Masquerade, the first Atlanta exhibition of work by Olaf Hajek, opens at Marcia Wood Gallery tonight Thur., Feb. 18 at 7 p.m.

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