The Renaissance palette of blues and greens, rippling sea, welcoming figures, and open scallop shell nearly touching the shore — Alessandro Botticelli’s 1480s painting of Venus immediately springs to mind.
In this familiar setting, instead of the original mythological greeters, Sponge Bob Square Pants and Bert and Ernie toys float through the scene, welcoming the breeze borne bivalve. Instead of Botticelli’s spring roses, little toys and origami-like folded papers sprinkle down.
“Birth of Venus with Toys” by Emilia Olson, brings together one of most recognizable Renaissance oil paintings with well-known cartoon and puppet characters — with humor, but also sincerity. The painting, done in 2002 and revisited this year, is one of Olson’s first works exploring this juxtaposition.
Emilia Olson’s “Birth of Venus with Toys” is among her paintings at her solo exhibition “Painting with the Past” at Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro. The show features two bodies of Olson’s work. Five large format canvasses — “Venus is” 63 inches by 109 inches — have Renaissance-like settings. Smaller oil paintings on wood panel are abstract with figurative elements, many drawing on toys or greeting card figures. A selection of tiny toy paintings and the toy models that appear in her work also are exhibited.
Olson’s theme of “Painting with the Past” extends beyond Renaissance references or even connections with vintage toys. Most of the artworks in the show had their first iterations two decades ago, before Olson packed them up, suspending her studio art practice for 15 years.
Now, Olson is back in the studio. This exhibition features panels and canvases from earlier work that she has revised, reimagined and finished, and new work.
Olson, who lives in Plainfield, graduated from Montpelier High School in 1997 and went on to study oil painting at the School of The Museum of Fine Arts and Tufts University, graduating in 2002.
Among the subjects that she explored were toys and greeting card figures and imagery. She also worked with a Boston muralist, including on grand Italian inspired landscapes — gaining experience in working at a large scale, and engaging deeply with masterworks.
But not long after her 2002 graduation, Olson stepped away from studio art.
“I decided doing studio painting was incompatible with being an adult. I was feeling guilty about not working hard enough or enough hours, so decided to just stop and move forward,” she explained at the exhibition opening last week.
She boxed up more than three dozen panels, several canvases, and many small works. Then she built a career in interior house painting — not murals, walls and trim.
In 2018, Maureen O’Connor Burgess, director of both the Gallery at Central Vermont Medical Center and the HCA Gallery, invited Olson to present her work in an exhibition at the hospital. The invitation spurred her to revisit the storage box contents.
“I recognized for first time that this was work of a 22-year-old,” said Olson.
Reacting to the panels, she sanded, scraped, painted, “did what I felt needed to be done for them to be finished,” she said.
Abstract and figurative elements come together in Olson’s panels. In “Toy Landscape,” a lamb, bunny, and vintage light fixtures populate a hilly abstracted scene. Plastic trophies from swimming meets emerge in “Palette.” A favorite greeting card image is revealed under layers of paint in “Baby Deer.”
In 2020, Olson christened her new studio with her painting “Lock Down 2020,” its block letters and layers of marks and color speaking to the moment.
Along with the panels, Olson revisited and moved ahead with large format canvases bringing together landscapes of master paintings and the toy images that had long intrigued her.
In her earlier work, Olson had many tiny works, 4-inch by 4-inch, with miniscule paintings of toys — a rubber duck, a chick — floating without context. When Olson started painting the landscapes they offered a setting.
Viewers recognize Olson’s settings — but her labels also reference the original pieces. She captures the rolling hills, solitary trees, and clustered buildings of Giorgione and Titian’s “Sleeping Venus,” the towering rocks of DaVinci’s “Virgin of the Rocks.”
Instead of mythological or religious figures, beautifully rendered toys are the subjects: Sponge Bob, a Fisher Price Chatter Phone, a bright red Tupperware elephant. The toys are painted with the detail of portraits: light reflects off of Bert’s red plastic nose and unibrow, she captures the blush of the cheeks of the Hummel-like figurine, the plush mouse is clearly soft to touch.
“I think Emelia pays homage to the landscapes she loves by Georgione, Titian, Botticelli, DaVinci and Bellini — to their palettes, their perspective, their brushstroke and their scale. She nods her head at art history and the information it affords … and she does this with great humility,” said Burgess at the exhibition opening.
“She is constantly in conversation with herself about the painting at hand. She is a thoughtful and intellectual painter who takes it all very seriously — yes, sometimes with tongue in cheek,” Burgess noted.
Olson said, “I’m happy to have my paintings where people can see them. Working in this way has allowed me to reintegrate with my past self and actually complete the lineage instead of having it severed in the middle.”
For the viewer, Olson said, “I hope you can just enjoy to see them. You seeing them completes the circuit of why art should be made.”
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