Los Angeles Times, December 12, 2002

By James Verini

“I once worked as a garbage-sifter for McDonald’s,” says Robert Olsen, who now makes enough as a painter of careful urban still lifes not to have to take such jobs. “Me and this other guy went around and counted discarded straws and sugar packets and then reported the numbers.”

A garbage-sifter? For a study? A consultancy? “Something like that,” he says, his mind moving elsewhere, as it will. When Olsen offers such answers, they suffice.

It is 1:30 a.m. and, as he drives down a deserted Beverly Boulevard looking for a good mannequin, Olsen, bespectacled, soft-spoken, scraggly bearded, dressed as a hip laboratory janitor in his off hours might, muses on garbage-related matters. It is a favorite topic of his. While a fine arts graduate student at UCLA, Olsen, now 32, drew up a map of all the garbage cans on campus (roughly 85) and, if you get him started, he’ll gush about an apartment complex in Santa Monica that boasts cans “four or five times normal size — trash cans on steroids.”

He hasn’t painted a series of oversized cans yet, only a series of Dumpsters. When he does, he might expand his purview to the north. “They have great garbage cans in Winnipeg,” Olsen says. This may be the closest his voice comes to emotion, but when Olsen speaks almost wistfully of the garbage cans in Canada, you feel an until-then unknown urge to go to Canada.

For the moment, however, Olsen, a native of nowhere in particular, is absorbed in Los Angeles, in the city’s noiseless anonymities: in its empty bus shelters; its dented old Datsuns; its steel ATMs at dusk; its tire boots; its parking meters; its Dumpsters.

These are the forms Olsen sees; this is what he paints. He paints them in the photo-realistic detail of a Phillip Pearlstein or Chuck Close, in a sequestered, ghostly manner that sometimes calls to mind De Chirico, sometimes Vermeer. He paints them over the course of months, applying as many as 20 layers of paint to get the night air just so, to end up with — let’s call them mundane cameos. Not precious but indelible. What Olsen does could be described as anti-action painting, or inanimate portraiture.

In his own way, Olsen reveres Los Angeles. He does not let on, but I know. He reveres its backwash, its blind, boundless regeneration. Perhaps he envies the city its unthinking solitude — or perhaps he fears it. Either way, that is why I’m out here with him, in the middle of the night. To see what’s missed by day. To witness Los Angeles through Olsen’s patient eyes is to be introduced to the lifeless citizens of the night, with him their proprietor. It is to see the city through the eyes of someone who makes an empty bus shelter an object of awe, who loves a lone orange boot on a tire.

“This must be the ’50s street,” Olsen says as he drives down cold, silent Wilshire Boulevard some time after 2 a.m. “A lot of Donna Reed attire out here.” Just at the moment the goal is mannequins. He’s fascinated by mannequins lately. “They have kind of a timeless aspect,” he says, hastening to add, “But I don’t want them to look too nostalgic.”

So he’s looking for timeless but not nostalgic mannequins? “Right,” he says, “although I once painted an acoustic modem from about 1987. I guess that was nostalgic.”

Most of Olsen’s paintings are set at night, and those that aren’t may as well be. And it is at night that Olsen paints; but before he paints, he drives. A few nights a week, starting around 1 a.m., he leaves his small apartment in West L.A. in his nondescript blue Saturn sedan (“I don’t have a dream car”) and navigates around for hours on end. When he finds what he wants, he pulls out a discreet little digital camera and furtively, without much fuss over composition, takes a few shots.

Sometimes he drives until dawn. In the window of the Saks Fifth Avenue men’s store across the street, he sees a mannequin he likes. He makes a U-turn and parks. “Look, this one has a navel,” he remarks, snapping a few pictures of it. He’s right; it does.

He walks a block to Saks’ women’s store, where the window contains a distressingly severe finishing school tableau. One poor specimen in a ball gown kneels against the wall, a book balanced on her head. Another commits some imbecility on a chalkboard. “This one’s probably also used for gun displays,” he says of a woman pointing her purse at a companion. Olsen is interested in their fragmented, genderless quality. “I stumbled across a Web site for a modeling agency that handles transsexuals recently,” he says. He’d like to photograph some transsexual models. He may get in touch.

“I need to come back here and learn how to tie a bow tie,” he says as we leave Saks. Olsen pulls out of his spot — he is adamant about finding legal parking spots even now, in these wee hours — and retraces Wilshire. He noticed a broken curbside the other day at the corner of Highland Avenue that he wants to photograph. He’s excited about it. “It’s a pretty spectacular broken curb.” He still hasn’t seen any boots tonight; usually by this point he’s shot at least one.

He finds the curb in question and slows down, but notices two police cars parked at the 7-Eleven across the street. “Uh-oh,” he says, and continues down Highland. He turns around, stops and waits for the cops to leave. “I like as little hassle as possible,” he says. Would the Los Angeles Police Department hassle him for photographing a curb? “You never know.

“I try to isolate the ubiquitous, I guess,” Olsen says as we wait. “I like to look at these things as mathematical models. Failure rates.” He’s fascinated with places that are meant for people but where people don’t fit. “Nobody’s comfortable in bus shelters,” he says. “I’ve ridden the bus once in L.A. But when they’re empty, they have this amazing glow.”

Not antisocial, Olsen does like to limit his interaction with people. “Just painting people, capturing the human condition or something, I’m not so interested in,” he says. This doesn’t bother the gallery owners championing Olsen’s work or the art world, which has begun, in its glacial way, to take notice. He’s had solo and group exhibitions here and in New York and Berlin. An ATM of his appeared in Harper’s magazine in May. He’s been written up in these pages, in the journals ART/TEXT and Art Issues. His work is not selling for much, but it is selling briskly.

As for the people selling and assessing it, one wonders whether they’ve been out with Olsen at night. “He transforms them into screens for emotional states of loneliness, abandonment and urban anxiety,” said Susanne Vielmetter, proprietor of Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects on Wilshire Boulevard, where Olsen has shown several times. Adam Ross, a curator, said he was attracted to “qualities of loneliness and alienation in the work…. There is a real sadness here.”

All of which may be true for them — but they can’t convince me it is for Olsen. At this ungodly hour, looking for stuff most people have forgotten exists, it’s clear that he likes what he sees. He just called a broken curbside “spectacular,” a trash can “great.”

Most of his friends, many of them artists, agree. “He is a recorder, a documenter,” said friend Jodie Mohr. “If this gives you any insight, he makes lists of things for us to talk about.” A classmate of his from UCLA, Paul Cherwick, said Olsen knows “pretty much every detail about everything. If you pick up an object, he’ll probably know who invented it and what its patent number is. The great flip side to his omniscient qualities is that he also likes to get drunk and sing ‘Chantilly Lace’ at dive karaoke bars.”

At 2:30 a.m., the cops drive away, and Olsen pulls back up to the corner of Highland and Wilshire. “It’s like a shipwreck or an iceberg painting, like a Casper David Friedrich,” he says, delighted. His satisfaction with the commonplace is infectious.

Next it’s off to Los Feliz, to the corner of Vermont Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard, where there’s a Metro station he’s been meaning to shoot. On the way we talk about his viewing habits. Does he frequent the galleries? Quite a lot — three or four times a week. Museums? “I’ll go to the Norton Simon, see how the old guys did it.” He is especially fond of Monet. Music? In a single breath he lists Jerry Lee Lewis, Thelonious Monk, Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach, Little Richard. Movies? Of course; this is L.A. But what movies?

When he wants to relax, he’ll go in for mindless action (“I like that they don’t try to be more than they are”) or science fiction of the 1960s and ’70s. His favorite single piece of sci-fi is the “Star Trek” episode in which Capt. Kirk fights the lizard-man Gorn. “Kirk’s doing all these rolls and flips, pre-T.J. Hooker.” He’ll occasionally watch the lizard-man episode frame by frame.

For a time, Olsen was into painting for size. He once did a series of buckets that stretched across eight 4-by 6-foot canvases. His scale has since zoomed in. Now his scenes transpire on custom-made 8-by-11 1/2-inch wood panels (“500 centimeters exactly”), in strict adherence to classic ratios.

We arrive at the Metro station at Vermont and Wilshire. It’s getting on 3 a.m., but Olsen doesn’t appear tired; no more tired than he usually appears, anyway. Still no boots. He kneels and takes a low-angle shot of the elevator structure. The red and green glare of the traffic lights bouncing off the mirrored steel pleases him. “Shiny metal is dangerous to paint,” he says. “It’s too beautiful by itself.”

While looking for more good angles, he tells a story. Like most of his stories, this one is short. One night he was looking for a new bus shelter — one that had no advertisements on it yet and thus gave off a perfect glow — but couldn’t find one. Just when he was about to give up, a bunch of “scofflaws” emerged from the shadows, broke a glass pane on a shelter and stole the poster. There was the glow he wanted. He photographed it, unnoticed, and later painted out the broken glass.

Is Olsen trying to bestow order on a chaotic place with his paintings? Is he trying to create the ideal bus shelter? “Something like that,” Olsen responds, shrugging. Would it make him happy if his paintings inspired people to take better notice of their physical environment? “To some degree. I wouldn’t want people to romanticize them,” he says. Who would romanticize a bus shelter? “You never know,” he says.

At 3:30 a.m., after shooting the Metro station, Olsen resolves to get serious about the boot issue. Finding one has now become a matter of pride, if such matters exist for Olsen. This means sticking to the low-rent districts and the side streets. But first he must pay a visit to some old friends. These friends are always parked on Hobart Street, just south of Sunset, usually one behind the other.

He turns onto Hobart, and there they are — two matching yellow Datsun Honeybees, circa 1976, that have shown up in his paintings now and again. There they are, semper fi, looking like an old pair of grandparents. He smiles. “I like to come back and check on them,” he says, “see their positions.”

Olsen’s own parents, still married, live in Northern California. His father recently had surgery for skin cancer; sitting on Olsen’s bookshelf at home is one of the rare portraits he’s attempted: one of his father from the neck up, with close detail of the biopsy site. Like Olsen, his father studied art in college. But Vietnam was on, and he joined the Army, ending up a career officer. This kept the family moving: Northern California, Texas, the Midwest, Germany. Olsen never spent more than two years or so in the same place. At the risk of getting psychological, did that transience heavily inform him, his work, even his choice to live in L.A.? “Could be,” he answers. Has his father been encouraging of Olsen’s artistic career? “I guess.”

We’re back on Sunset. Suddenly, Olsen stops, throws the car into reverse and, in a moment of wild illegality, parks in a red zone. What has caused this bout of passion? “A nice little find”: a Honda with its back left corner crushed, as though it had been vacuumed inward, as though by design. This is Olsen’s kind of car accident. “I like damaged cars,” he says. When he lived in Sacramento, he recalls, there was a ditch off a particularly hairy turn he would make sure to inspect on Sunday mornings. It always had car parts, sometimes entire cars, lying in it.

It is approaching 4 a.m. and still no boots. The conversation, which has turned back to the subject of L.A., has grown brooding. Does Olsen like living here? “I think so,” he says. “The boundaries are somewhat arbitrary. You’re always in the middle of the city no matter where you’re at. In New York, you run into people you know. Here, you can go about your business and never see anybody if you don’t want to. If you go out of town for a month in L.A., maybe no one will know.” He pauses. “But these ongoing fixtures, I don’t know if I could find them anywhere else.”

What’s done right in L.A.? What’s done wrong? He answers in the same breath. “It builds itself up without worrying about history,” he says. “It’s not weighted down by 900 years of history. But there are certain aspects of culture that should be slow, evolutionary, and certain aspects that should be fast, changing by the generation. But somehow everything here seems to change at the same rate — way too fast.”

At 4:30 a.m., just when it looks as though the hunt will have to end without a trophy, here on this faceless tract of Venice Boulevard, Olsen spots in his rearview mirror a black BMW with a small, orange blur below. “I think that’s one,” he says. With all the excitement you will ever see mustered in Robert Olsen, he makes a U-turn, speeds back up Venice and pulls alongside the BMW. Yes, his honed eye did not deceive. It is, indeed, a boot. A big, beautiful, orange boot. And there’s a legal space just a few cars ahead. Perfect. Olsen parks, grabs his camera, gets out. He kneels close. A flash of light. And then another. Robert Olsen is content — or absorbed anyway. Soon he can go home and paint.