VISUAL ARTS PREVIEW: Incantations in Thread 

Amish Incantations: Karin Olah aims for geometric elegance

Incantations in Thread
Corrigan Gallery
Opening reception Nov. 2, 5 p.m.
On view through Nov. 30
62 Queen St.
(843) 722-9868

It's been called the Garden Spot of America, because of its fertile soil, plethora of farms, rhubarb festival, and quilts.

Lots and lots of quilts.

"I can't remember ever not seeing them," says Karin Olah, speaking of Lancaster County, Pa., where she grew up. "It's how people decorated their homes. Quilts are a big part of the culture there."

A strong Amish presence in Lancaster County (the Harrison Ford movie Witness was filmed there) has imbued the artist with a strong fascination with the culture's "geometric, simple, yet rich tonal quilts." As a child, Olah loved the puzzle-piece shapes she saw in each quilt. She found the individual squares beautiful.

"I loved it when they joined up to make a complete image," she says. "The way things fit into a grid."

While majoring in fiber art at the Maryland Institute College of Art, she was able to experiment with the conceptual and utilitarian uses of fabric. She dyed, printed, built, and spun fabrics. Eight years after graduating, her passion hasn't faded.

Since moving to Charleston in 2003, Olah has made a name for herself as a mixed-media artist, drawing inspiration from the streets and marshes she sees while commuting to the Eva Carter Gallery, where she is director.

For the past two years, her work has been chosen for the Charleston Farmers Market poster, and her paint-and-fabric abstracts have cropped up at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park, Redux Contemporary Art Center, 53 Cannon, Church Studio, and Brookgreen Gardens, to name a few. Incantations in Thread is her second solo show at Corrigan Gallery, which represents her work.

"There are a lot of new colors in this show," Olah says. "Blues, khaki, straw. I'm incorporating them into my old vocabulary."

Some of the new works balance blue with Olah's trademark reds; others stand alone, complementing her past palettes.

"I'm also using new, heavier fabrics, thicker linens, cotton. And as a final touch, I'm drawing with thread, looping it around on top of my paintings in a long, linear way. You only see it when you get up close. It's elegant."

Elegance aptly describes Olah's art. Instead of sewing pieces of cloth together, she glues them, adding graphite and acrylics to her collages. Not all of her images leave an impression on the viewer, but none are slapdash either. They're all carefully defined, professionally wrought pieces — a natural expression of an artist who admires the geometric elegance of the Amish.

The show's title derives from recurring shades and shapes found in Olah's Incantations, a series that connotes a kind of mesmeric music.

"First Incantation" looks like an orchestra tuning up, with abstracted red-faced figures preparing to play. Olah uses fabric, thread, gouache, acrylic, and graphite on canvas to create the anxiety of anticipation leading up to a performance. In this piece, there's also a greater sense of depth than Olah's previous work, with clusters of shapes and vertically-striped curtains in the background.

Suggestions of music are subtly woven throughout the series. "Second Incantation" is like the sound of improvised jazz, with mellow brownish colors escaping from what could be blank manuscript paper. "Third Incantation" harmonizes sad, lonely singular notes with a cosmic spiral of seeds, or perhaps they are planets, echoing each other with their shapes. There are more echoes in "Sixth Incantation," with blue reflections and faint shadows dwarfing dark green leafy curls of color.

By creating so many different moods — plaintive to playful to passionate — Olah successfully uses her incantations to conjure the pitch and fall of voices. But while the labor involved in quilt-making recalls a powerful historical context, which itself informs Olah's mixed-media non-representational works of art, the question remains: Isn't fabric something her granny should be sewing?

"A lot of people think of fiber artists as being grandma-like," she replies. "But it's a very cool material to work with. It touches you every day. Working in textiles is something that — physically and metaphorically — I've always been wrapped up in, warmed by, and felt the weight of. I hope my work has that same enchanting hold on the viewer."

Olah's opening reception is part of the Ninth Annual Charleston Fine Art weekend, which is produced by the Charleston Fine Art Dealers' Association. The weekend also includes a Painting in the Park event at Washington Park on the morning of Nov. 3 and a Charleston Art Auction that evening. Proceeds from ticket sales and from the sales of paintings from the park will go to Charleston County Schools art programs.


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