Three weeks ago, Spencer Olsen found a panda in the trash. Tonight, the wood cutout advertisement for some Chinese airline is a psychedelic deity from another dimension. Electric pink swirls of acrylic paint marker suggest molten fur and sacred geometry, and patterned green feet are planted half in Las Vegas and half in a rainbow-lined portal of cellular cross-sections blown up from an old textbook.
“I’ve never done anything like that,” says Olsen, whose fine pen and ink works on other walls of Wasteland Gallery were supposed to be the bulk of his solo exhibition Imaginary Emails. But when he posted the original cutout to Instagram, Wasteland owner Scott Wood suggested he make it his own.
“It’s different for him; it’s different for most shows. He’s breaking out and stretching his legs a bit,” Wood says. “I’m in love with what he did.”
In his 2-month-old gallery on the edge of the Arts District, Wood is in love with more than the panda. The one-room space (plus a hallway) has the feel of a personal collection. One wall is devoted to a rotation of works by Mike and Dasha Biggs, ranging from Mike’s 13-point buck decorated like a sexy Christmas tree (and awesomely titled “Nice Rack”) to Dasha’s undead riff on an iconic Star Wars poster. Another power couple, Roxy B. and Albert F. Montoya, brings contrast to the shelves with the pop-surrealism of her stylized menagerie of ice-cream animals and the furious line work and dark subject matter of his illustrations. Jska Priebe’s lush portraiture, Ryan Tino’s pop stenciling and Juan Muniz’s cartoons share the spotlight with mixed media mashups by Snipt, comics by Pop! Goes the Icon and two-dimensional sculpture by Dan45, among other visual artists, albums by local bands and a handful of curios. Prices range from $10 for a small framed print of Raphael Buckles’ “Barf Bag” to $1,200 for Olsen’s wall-swallowing panda.
An artist himself, Wood has long supported “creatives of all walks,” through former galleries, street fair co-ops, First Friday afterparties and his reverse-propaganda sticker campaign Waste Your Life. Be An Artist. The campaign recently turned eight, though Wood admits that with a family to support and a full-time job in addition to Wasteland, he doesn’t get out nearly as often to paper the streets with his stickman holding various objects, from a paintbrush to a video camera. “It’s pretty over the top, but at the same time it strikes a chord,” Wood says, “because growing up if you thought yourself an artist or that’s where your drive was, even if you weren’t flat out told in those harsh of words, someone somewhere basically said that to you. I’m taking that and reversing it.”
True to his catchphrase, Wood functions like a promoter, constantly hunting for underground and up-and-coming talents to showcase alongside established names. “There are artists out there that are doing a lot but just aren’t getting into galleries or aren’t getting solo shows. I’m especially keeping an eye out for folks like that,” he says. “It’s not like everybody wants it to be a closed circle, but at the same time if nobody knows you or nobody’s met you, shows just don’t appear.”
Olsen didn’t hit the gallery scene until about a year ago. He’s been in group shows at places likes Artistic Armory and TastySpace and held down his first solo exhibition at a now defunct gallery (that got busted by the fire department for occupancy issues the night his show opened), but Imaginary Emails could be considered a breakout, if only for the main piece’s departure from his signature style.
“It was really fun to think of and conceptualize and make happen,” Olsen says, chuckling when asked about the meaning of Imaginary Emails. There’s no high concept, though he’s happy to make one up on the fly. It’s an inside joke, and he just liked the sound of it. The anchor visual is similarly without some overwrought conceptual statement beyond the idea of coming from another reality and taking over the spectrum of color and composition. “A friend of mine said, ‘I really like it, but it’s hard to look at because it’s getting inside my head almost.’” Olsen says. “I’m like, ‘That’s perfect.’”
Considering that he typically works with Zig pens and Black Cat India ink on surfaces that don’t get much bigger than 11x17, the power of having serious wall space and a friendly prod from a gallery owner is clear. Wood takes no credit for Olsen’s creation, though he looks upon the scene of people enjoying it with genuine pride.
Wood's tone is the same when he shares the exhibition schedule through next summer, including a group show called Wasted Artists done entirely on alcohol cans and bottles. It’s a challenge Wood himself would enjoy tackling, but his creativity is engaged in building Wasteland and awareness for the greater Downtown Spaces complex, whose tenants range from other galleries and a recording studio to a burlesque company and a multimedia production agency. There’s so much passion and potential in this one block of projects, but Wood acknowledges they may not all make it. That’s the thing about wasting your life and being an artist.
“I’ve almost stopped doing just even the campaign itself at least three times throughout the years, like literally if someone offered me a thousand bucks I’d sell all rights, or if this doesn’t come through or something doesn’t happen I’m just gonna pull the plug ’cause what’s the use?” he says. But nights like this keep him going, through openings and celebratory beers at the Hard Hat and maybe a nap on Wasteland’s broken-in Craigslist couches. This is home, too. “I’d rather be doing something than not. And I enjoy what it’s turned into. It’s hard to talk about it without sounding pretentious or whatever, but I do enjoy creating something like this to give someone the opportunity to sell or display. It’s got its own return.”
Wasteland Gallery Thursday 6-9 p.m., Friday & Saturday 6-11 p.m., Sunday-Wednesday by appointment. 1800 Industrial Road #104A.