When Mark Olshansky sets to work on a new embroidery, the first thing he does is put his initials in the corner. It’s a modest but significant gesture on the part of this now-93-year-old artist, a way of saying, I am here. This done, as he puts it, “I just go,” filling the pictorial field, stitch after stitch. The results may call to mind some familiar art historical touchstones: the winsome abstractions of Paul Klee, or more proximately, the adventuresome textile experiments of Gunta Stölzl, Sophie Taeuber Arp and Sonia Delaunay. But any resemblance between Olshansky’s work and that of this modernist generation, artists who were working around the time of his own birth, is strictly coincidental. He took to embroidery not in response to any precedent, but entirely instinctively, as soon as it was placed in his hands. This occurred when he was about forty years old, at a cocktail party, where needle and thread was made available as “a light-hearted accompaniment to the more serious activity of downing martinis with stylish canapes,” as he recalls. Olshansky was there in his capacity as an insurance adjuster; the house had been hit by lightning, twice, and had been renovated. It’s impossible to resist the notion that his revelation was a third bolt from the blue. He plunged into needlework, though later on he did take “a brief 20-year hiatus,” so he could concentrate on a new career as a wine importer. He’s been back at it fulltime for more than a decade now, the pictures pouring out of him, each one suggesting (without actually depicting) a landscape, a place accessible only in the mind.
Allison Reimus first learned sewing from her grandmother, who is alive and well, crafting every day, and as it happens, exactly the same age as Mark Olshansky. Before she ever saw a painting – her first was a Seurat, at age 14 – Reimus was already deeply immersed in making art. It was the kind that makes no claims about its own status, fabric wreaths, decorative baskets, crocheted hot pads, that sort of thing. But art nonetheless. It’s against this background of what used to be called “domestic accomplishment” that her current paintings should be seen. Like Olshansky, she works more or less intuitively, with just the barest outline of a composition established in advance. (“I don't always stick to the plan,” she says, “but it feels nice to have one.”) Then she, too, just goes, populating the pictorial field with incident: patches of paint alongside actual patches of dyed and raw canvas, collaged images of paint tubes, and eccentrically rendered lettering (xxx). In one work, a handmade hot pad is mounted dead-center like a relic, or perhaps, an allegorical self-portrait of her past teenage self.
The side-by-side presentation of Olshansky and Reimus at RA Gallery is an inspired combination. They are separated by six decades in age, and a gulf of life experience. Though Olshansky was raised in a culturally attuned family – several of his relatives were concert musicians – and is an opera lover and frequent museum goer, he is essentially self-taught in the visual arts. Reimus, meanwhile, holds both a BFA and MFA, and moves easily in the conceptual terrain that forms the basis of art school education. Yet aesthetically and thematically, the two artists are within close hailing distance of one another. Both are superb colorists, skilled at achieving painterly effects in non-paint materials. Olshansky works with 3-ply Persian wool, separating the factory-made yarns into separate strands and then re-twining them, as if he were mixing a palette. Reimus’s wide-ranging repertoire of materials means that she is combining colors from different universes, Winsor & Newton oils alongside findings from Michael’s craft superstore. The two artists are also alike in their use of the grid, which, we should remember, was the matrix of weaving long before it became the province of avant-garde painting. Craft, one might say, is the real abstraction (as opposed to the ideal, modernist, gesturing-at-the-transcendent kind), generated organically from the interaction of materials and the mobile creative mind.
Speaking of getting real, the show is also a helpful reminder (not that one should be needed) of the hopeless inadequacy of gender stereotypes. Reimus is the one making powerhouse paintings, Olshansky the one bending patiently over his stitches. This really shouldn’t be a surprise. In an important recent book, historian Joseph McBrinn has explored a rich history of men’s embroidery; and if there’s anyone out there who still believes that monumental abstraction is no place for a woman, let’s please get them to a Joan Mitchell painting, and fast. Yet old habits of thought do die hard, especially in the craft domain, where, as Reimus dryly notes, “if it’s soft it was probably made by a female,” while woodworking, blacksmithing and glass blowing are still majority-masculine. It’s still important to show that people of all kinds make work of all kinds. As this show ample demonstrates, even a two-artist demographic can contain multitudes.
This gives the event a special kind of joy; there’s an almost giddy pleasure in the discovery of such close affinity between apparently dissimilar artists. At an earlier stage of her career, Reimus initiated a project called “Jumping in Art Museums,” which was just that: she would go to various institutions and leap into midair, with a friend capturing the shot on camera. This did cause some perplexity for museum security – “the museum rules do not state no jumping,” as Reimus points out, but even so, guards would often be unsure if they should be putting a stop to it. She invited others to do the same, and the images people sent her suggest the satisfactions of the just-slightly illicit, and the delight that art is supposed to give its audience, though it doesn’t always. Standing at RA Gallery, surrounded by the vivid formal intelligence of Reimus and Olshansky’s work, you’ll feel a sense of elevation even if your feet remain firmly planted. It’s not every day that an exhibition this life-affirming comes along: life at its very fullest extent. Back when he turned 80, Olshansky mused that he had perhaps “chased the wrong things.” Maybe it would have been better if he had given even more of himself to his art? But, he figured, “it’s really never too late.” Recently, as if to prove the point, he completed a work that he began fifty years ago. That’s about when I was born, and more than a decade before Reimus was. Yet here we all are, together, marveling at the way simple materials can conjure whole worlds, when worked by human hands. Ain’t life grand?
Glenn Adamson is a curator and writer who works at the intersection of craft, design history and contemporary art. He has previously been Director of the Museum of Arts and Design; Head of Research at the V&A; and Curator at the Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee. His book Craft: An American History was published by Bloomsbury in January 2021. He is currently at work on A Century of Tomorrows, a new book about the history of the future.