Shrines to the Spirits of Modernism: John Pearson and Scott Olson at Abattoir Gallery

Thought Forms, Installation View


Abattoir is on a mission to highlight the best of Northeast Ohio and put it in a larger context by bringing new voices into Cleveland and to take Cleveland voices out into the world. Operated by Lisa Kurzner and Rose Burlingham, the gallery seeks to create a space for contemporary art. Their current exhibition, Thought Forms, John Pearson, Scott Olson, pairs two Northeast Ohio artists with national and international followings for a unique take on their works. After having conversations with John Pearson, Kurzner felt that there was more going on with his work than what texts have previously described. Then, when Olson approached Abattoir about showing in their gallery, the idea to pair the two artists began to solidify, “The spirituality about both these artists’ works come from opposite viewpoints and meet in the middle.” The resulting exhibition creates a space of meditation on the past and the present.

Thought Forms is in a conversation with the history of early 20th century art, even borrowing the title from Annie Besant’s illustrated book on spiritualism and science. It ties together the hard-edged precise geometry of Pearson’s constructions to the more organic flow of Olson’s abstract watercolors by highlighting the shared spiritual essence. Each have their own perspective about Modernist ideas on abstraction. Pearson, who has twice been recognized by the Cleveland Arts Prize, and was a long-time professor at Oberlin College, has used a scientific approach to his art. Olson, who lives and works in Kent and is represented by galleries in New York, Stockholm, and Berlin, develops his work from improvisation.

John Pearson, Shinto Series, (black diamond), A #12, 1995, acrylic on wood, 21 x 15 inches

The works by Pearson are primarily from the 1990s Shinto Series that he created in Japan. Kurzner commented, “We went into the studio several times and Rose and I were both floored. It looks like the Russian revolution artist group from 1922 on the whole studio wall… It was this whole grammar of minimalist shapes.” This allusion to the Russian Suprematists is even felt in the installation. When entering the exhibition, I half expected to see Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1913) to be hanging in the upper corner of the room. Malevich’s search for something beyond the material world is reflected by Pearson. Kurzner continued, “The story that he started making them when he was in Japan, I thought made perfect sense with humble material and spirituality; taking political, intellectual shapes and giving them spiritual context.”

John Pearson (Shinto Series C #12, white), 1995, acrylic on panel, 21 x 9.5 inches

Pearson’s work is not usually described as being spiritual, however the appearance of simplicity permits the viewer to start thinking about how basic shapes like cruciforms, rhombuses, and squares take on different meanings. Derived from oftentimes complex systems, Pearson delicately balances the idea of Suprematism’s reductive attempt for a universal humanism with Japanese Shinto art, which feature shrines and talismans. Shinto shrines were constructed not as places of worship, but to house sacred objects. The passthroughs and cutouts found in Pearson’s work, like Opus #2 and Black Diamond, convey the feeling that these works act as reliquaries meant to safeguard and shelter Modernist ideas.

Installation view of watercolor works by Scott Olson

Olson’s paintings in the exhibition are rhythmic with a melodic use of color and form that reference Orphism, a purely non-objective abstraction derived from Cubism, recalling the works of Robert and Sonia Delaunay. Kurzner explains that Olson had been creating daily drawings during the pandemic, reflecting on the rhythms of contemporary life. His works all go untitled, and like the days we have experienced in 2020, elements from one painting can lead into another. They are at the same time one large work of art as well as individual pieces forming a meditation on “being in the moment”. In contrast to Pearson’s use of ridged geometry, most of Olson’s work is just off square. He doesn’t follow patterns; instead, his method of painting is purely intuitive as he sections off the compositions. “I see Scott as the commiserate shifter, scavenger of western abstraction, starting with Kupka, Kandinsky, Delaunay, Paul Klee, and Arthur Dove,” describes Kurzner.

Scott Olson, Untitled, 2020, watercolor on paper, 20 x 16 inches

The small scale of the works may fool the viewer into thinking these are simple paintings, but once you get a closer look, they expand and unfold in a visual web of compartmentalized and overlapping shapes. Placement on the sheet is also part of the work and gives the paintings additional space to enhance the impact of the composition. Olson even incorporates the sheet further in some of the watercolors by carefully leaving thin white lines between the shapes. Impressively, he does this without penciling it out or using tapes. The effect recalls white line block printing which, along with Orphism, was developed in the early twentieth century.

The intimacy in Olson’s work forces personal reflection and heightens the sense of the spiritual. The spare installation allows for focus, permitting the viewer to understand that these paintings are much larger than their physical size. The translucent watercolors look as though they are dimly lit from the inside. This creates a mystical, rather than analytical, understanding of the world. Some of the forms appear to be referential, but that is not the intention. Olson leaves the interpretation up to the viewer.

The works in Thought Forms are a meditative task, and inherently speak to one’s own sense of spirituality. Pearson and Olson allow us to look through their works and into our own minds. Their work conveys a truth of inner experience made personal for each viewer. Kurzner says of the exhibition, “I wanted to shine a different light on something that people think they already know.” In doing so, Abattoir has created an atmosphere in which the calm in Pearson’s and Olson’s work give self-examination a welcome sense of renewal.


Thought Forms runs through March 26th. Hours are by appointment.



The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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