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Centro de Arte Contemporáneo of Málaga presents a survey of Erwin Olaf's work from the last decade
Kitchen – Hope serie, 2005. Photo: Courtesy Erwin Olaf Studio.

MALAGA.- The Centro de Arte Contemporáneo of Málaga is presenting a survey of Erwin Olaf’s work from the last decade. In Cell of Emotions, the exhibition curated by Fernando Francés, visitors will be able to admire more than sixty pieces that document the Dutch artist’s output since 2005. Though known as one of the leading exponents of contemporary photography, he has also produced videos and installations. Olaf, who has shot several major advertising campaigns for well-known brands, uses a combination of photojournalism and studio photography to recreate situations that question the spectator’s feelings, characterised by a meticulous mise-en-scène where reality mingles with fiction and a back-to-basics philosophy that dictates a sparing use of photo touch-ups. Unbridled consumerism and social isolation are among the recurring themes in his oeuvre. Erwin Olaf lives and works in Amsterdam.

Speaking of his work, Erwin Olaf (b. Hilversum, Netherlands, 1959) once explained, “Modern photography doesn’t really interest me, and I think this will be true to my dying day; perhaps I am jealous of painting, but I couldn’t paint.” Cell of Emotions presents a selection of the works created by this Dutch artist over the last decade, grouped in series. In the works featured in this show, Olaf addresses current social issues, taboos and conventions from a personal point of view with painstakingly detailed sets and scenarios. His recreations often make viewers doubt the evidence of their eyes, because he takes his own fantasies to such extremes that in some cases they turn into nightmares.

For Fernando Francés, director of the CAC Málaga, “The Dutch artist strips those moments of reality and grants them the greatest privilege of all: giving the collective imaginary free rein, inviting spectators to question their principles and prejudices. To recreate those settings, he uses devices that render the atmosphere in the gallery dense and stifling. In an instant anything, however implausible, is possible. Based on these premises, one can read critiques of consumerism, the social isolation of people, decadence, provocation, eroticism, even satire and humour in his photographs. His technique has evolved, returning to the classical and limiting his intervention in the end result to a minimum of photo touch-ups. But not everything is valid: if what is exhibited is too real, in the fantasy world Olaf has dreamed up, this idea is discarded. He has no interest in things that immediately lend themselves to easy interpretation.”

The artist’s photographs eloquently convey the emotions of his subjects, like the anxiety of waiting captured in the Hope series (2005), which recreates the moment immediately before something happens in everyday settings and speaks of the loneliness and isolation of our times; or the pain of the characters in the Grief series (2007), which depicts the upsetting effect of the Kennedy assassination on American society. One of his most provocative and unsettling works is the Keyhole series (2011), in which Olaf presents spectators with a lock and invites them to peer through the keyhole at what is hidden behind it. The visitors’ personal prejudices and feelings of shame are revealed when they realise the kind of thoughts that pop into their heads after performing this simple act.

Olaf’s preoccupation with aesthetics, the superfluous and rampant consumerism is expressed in Le Dernier Cri (2006), where we find rooms and objects arranged and combined with impeccable taste, and people so obsessed with appearances that they have chosen to deform their own bodies. In Berlin (2012), set in the 1920s, Olaf captures the decadence of a pre-war city. The exhibition is rounded out by a selection of videos and installations, some of which are moving reflections of his still photographs.

Olaf’s technique has evolved over the course of his career. He started out with black-and-white, and later moved on to colour photography and digital editing. In his latest creations, Erwin Olaf does very little touch-up work, returning to a more classical conception of photography. His love of excess identifies him as a baroque artist, marked by the use of carefully calculated resources and a sophisticated visual production.

Erwin Olaf was born in 1959 in the Dutch city of Hilversum and currently lives in Amsterdam. Olaf’s trademark combination of photojournalism and studio photography caught the world’s attention in 1988, when his series Chessmen won first prize in the Young European Photographer Competition. This award was followed by an exhibition at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany, that same year. In 1987 Olaf began working with film, which has remained an important medium in his oeuvre ever since. His films have been screened at several leading museums, including the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and film festivals around the world, such as the Fashion Film Festival (Melbourne), Les Rencontres Internationales (Paris), the Ankara International Film Festival (Turkey), the European Media Art Festival/ EMAF (Osnabrück, Germany), and the International Film Festival Rotterdam (Netherlands).

He has also worked for a number of prestigious fashion magazines and designers. Olaf has won numerous international art and media prizes, including Photographer of the Year at the 2006 International Colour Awards. In the United States, he received the 2008 Lucie Award for Achievement in Advertising. In 2011, he was granted the prestigious Johannes Vermeer Award, the Dutch state prize for the arts, and in 2013 his design was chosen to be the new face of the Dutch euro coins. In autumn 2014, Aperture released a new book dedicated to Olaf, an overview of the artist’s output over the years that includes his most recent work.

Erwin Olaf has had numerous solo and group exhibitions at both Dutch and international venues, including the George Eastman House, Rochester, NY, Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, Chelsea Art Museum, New York, Museum voor Moderne Kunst Arnhem (Netherlands), Kunsthalle Winterthur (Switzerland) and the Museum of the City of New York. Some of his most important solo exhibitions have been held at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Groninger Museum (Netherlands), MonteVideo (Amsterdam), Galleria d’Arte Moderna di Bologna (Italy), Moscow Museum of Modern Art (Russia), Fotomuseum Den Haag (The Hague, Netherlands), Fotomuseum Antwerp (Netherlands), lnstitut Néerlandais (Paris, France), Hermitage Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and La Sucrière (Lyon, France).

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