September 2010

Erwin Olaf



In the series of recent photographs shown here, Erwin Olaf places nearly naked subjects in meticulously arranged mock-ups of hotel rooms to create luxuriantly cinematic images. The shadowy lighting gives a retro feel to settings that puts the works somewhere between Edward Hopper and Mad Men.

More important, the models look gorgeous, wealthy, and vaguely unhappy, gazing into the middle distance with anguished, nervous or blank expressions. These nudes, instead of signaling beauty or intimacy, exude the restless anomie associated with people who travel too much or have grown too accustomed to being waited on. They are surrounded by all the signs of transient life: a room-service platter, stripped-off clothes thrown over a valet, a bedside phone with its message light aglow.

In some images, a slight incongruity between the model and the objects around her (or him, in one case) lends a sense of unease and mystery. In Hotel Milan, Room 609 (2009), a nude woman with a crumpled nightgown in her hands sits on a bed, gazing at something out of frame, while a pair of lavender pumps lies tossed on the floor. A half-drunk glass of orange juice is on the table as if the woman has just woken up for breakfast, but the bedcover is taut and undisturbed and she is perfectly made up. Here and in other photographs, the furniture looms large and plays a supporting role in the story suggested, never told.

Olaf obviously has a gift for evoking mood and keeping his subjects’ emotions subdued yet readable. But you can look at only so many woman-in-a-hotel-room photographs before you want to check out, and this show would have benefited from a wider variety of his impressive work.

– -Roger Atwood