Representations of a Life

by William R. Thompson

Maggie Olvey: A Tribute, Houston Center for Photography, March 17 – April 30, 1995.

At one time or another virtually every photographer steps from behind the camera and stands before the lens – a critical juncture, commonly known as the self-portrait, that transforms the photographer from author into subject. Before her death in August 19994 at the age of 42, Maggie Olvey did this many times using methods that distanced her from photography’s conventions. In her work, Olvey explored the issue of self-representation while pushing the boundaries f the photographic medium to its limits.
Olvey is well-known to many practitioners of photography in Houston as a founding member of Houston Center for Photography and a former co-editor of SPOT. She received a B.A. degree from Rice University in n1974 with a major in French and a minor in science. Judging from her career path, it may be assumed that Olvey loved to work with paper, whether it took the form of a book, manuscript, drawing, print, or photograph. In 1978 she joined the staff of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston as an Assistant to the Registrar; two years later she became the Curatorial Assistant for works of art on paper and took responsibility for managing the museum’s rapidly growing collections of prints, drawings, and photographs. In addition to working at the museum and raising two children, Olvey earned an M.F.A. degree in photography at the University of Houston in 1991. Throughout her career she took a serious and systematic approach to the study of photography. Olvey curated several exhibitions for HCP and frequently researched and wrote about the medium’s history and innovators. She constantly drew upon this knowledge when creating her own work as well.
Spanning the period from 1982 to 1994, the works included in the HCP exhibition display a wide range of intellectual concerns and technical experimentation. Olvey’s intensely personal constructions are complex in terms of appearance, making them difficult to categorize based on media alone. Of the fourteen works comprising the exhibition, only one is an example of straight photography – a small postcard titled My Icon, 1982/85. Most of the works are constructions or assemblages incorporating various found objects along with innovative approaches to printmaking and photographic processes. Although the structural elements are different for each work, they all share a sense of experimentation. Most important, they collapse the traditional boundaries and presumed hierarchies between print-making, painting, sculpture, and photography. Despite her primary devotion to photography, Olvey was never satisfied working with one particular medium and her work represents a constant struggle to utilize new materials and sources.
Olvey first experienced the symptoms of cancer in 1991 while traveling as a museum courier. The artist’s appropriation of photographic images and leftover paraphernalia from various medical treatments is a chilling reminder that conventional therapies for cancer can be as devastating to the mind and body as the disease itself. In Fallout, 1992 the artist created a self-portrait using a Plexiglas support, a wooden component from a hammock, a mask of plastic mesh that held her head in place during radiation treatment, and a sheet of film showing twelve computerized views of the interior of her brain. Olvey assembled these disparate objects – each a symbolic fragment of her life – in a minimalist reconstruction of her body. The molded face mask and weathered hammock fragment represent her head and spine while the computerized film rigidly defines her shoulders and chest; each of these elements leans against the Plexiglas support and casts an eerie shadow in the wall behind. In a written statement from 19993 included as part of the exhibition, Olvey noted that “Without the invisible support of friends and family, represented by the Plexiglas framework of Fallout, my recovery would not have come so easily.” She described these assemblages as “metaphors of my experience while coping with difficult diagnoses and potent treatments. The various elements of each piece may be read as narrative symbols of my struggles… as each month of treatment came and went, another element would be added, subtracted, bolted, or tied down.” Fallout and the other works from this series were as much a part of Olvey’s therapy as the surgery, radiation, and drugs.
In Backbone, c. 1994 Olvey again represented a fragment of herself by incorporating the other wooden piece from the hammock in a symbolic rendition of her diseased spine. Gauze bandages and a strip of film from another medical test are tangled among the wooden vertebrae, creating a striking dichotomy between the fragile, ethereal nature of the work and the strength and fortitude implied by the title. Although she confronted the issue of her cancer openly in these constructions, Olvey remained private and guarded in terms of representing the Self, and only revealed aspects of her experience by documenting her body section by section with almost scientific precision. The viewer reads the story behind these objects one chapter at a time but never as a complete tale, much less an open book. It is not surprising that Olvey rarely represented the human body as a whole in her assemblages, both those created before and after the diagnosis of her cancer; she preferred instead to represent the body in metaphorical fragments. In My Icon, for example, she playfully incorporated a pair of feet with painted toenails in a postcard sent to friends. In the collaged Type C print me, 1990/92, another self-portrait, Olvey used a contact sheet to show only her face from twenty-five different profiles.
Although Olvey’s illness is by far the most pronounced theme of the exhibition, it is by no means the only subject that engaged the artist. A number of her constructions reflect a wide-ranging and critical interest in art history, no doubt due in part to her scholarly pursuits and the years she spent working in a museum with “encyclopedic” collecting ambitions. Using the now standard formula for Post-Modern appropriation, Olvey attached reproductions of well-known works of art from throughout to some of her assemblages; several figures from Hieronymous Bosch’s paintings, including the famous drinker from Ship of Fools, c. 1495 adorn Untitled, 1993-94 an elegant grid painting by Mondrian has been collaged to a page in A Barthes Reader, 1987/94 and the image of Hans Bellmer’s La Poupee, 1936 has been transferred onto the hanging fabric inObsessions, 1991. The use of such appropriations problematizes the issue of intellectual property and questions the sanctity of so-called artistic originality, concepts Olvey seemed to relish exploiting in these and other pieces.
The images Olvey chose to appropriate, however, are much more than exercises in critical inquiry; they function on a deeply symbolic level as well. In Recollections, 1992 Olvey’s appropriation of an anatomical study done by Leonardo da Vinci in 1489 reveals her historical interest in the drawing and its relevance to her cancer. The drawing shows a meticulously rendered cross-section of a human skull with numerous cavities, arteries, and nerve clusters. Although executed more than five hundred years ago, it is a beautiful and astonishingly accurate study of human anatomy – a testament to Leonardo’s accomplishments as both artist and scientist. Ironically, the drawing was displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in the summer of 1992 in the exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci: The Anatomy of Man” not long after Olvey was treated for a brain tumor. Olvey’s appropriation of the image is not a coincidence, but rather a deliberate attempt to related the five-hundred-year-old drawing to her experience.
Olvey also paid homage to other canonical masters in one of the most visually successful pieces in the exhibition, the collage sHE, 1991. The work bears striking formal and iconographic resemblance to the early Dada collages of Max Ernst and Hans Arp. The support for sHE is a zinc plate that Olvey used in 1988 for another print called B Whose Measure Are We Ruled?; a portion of the title is still visible in reverse on the surface of the plate. By recycling components from old works of art and utilizing them in new compositions, Olvey followed the direction of Arp who at one time tore up his old artwork and rearranged the pieces into colleges that explored the role of chance in artistic creation. It was an important exercise for him, and no doubt for Olvey, as it demonstrated that new creative possibilities could emerge from the destruction of past pork. Taking a cue from Ernst, who also manipulated images from magazines in his early collages, Olvey glued photocopied images from a nineteenth century Harper’s Weekly onto the zinc place to form the letters that spell the word “sHE.” In her collage, the “s” is made primarily from objects with rounded, curvilinear forms possessing traditional feminine associations – a baby carriage, corsets, flowers, a stovetop with pots, and soap. Most of the objects comprising the “H” are phallic and typically masculine accouterments, including a handgun, a man’s shoe, the lower half of a leg, and the tip of a fountain pen; the “E” is made from a grand piano lying on its side. At first glance the work appears to be a clever and humorous play on the sexual possibilities of Victorian merchandise, in much the same way that Ernst’s collages revealed and in some cases subverted the gender of everyday objects and mechanical devices. Unlike Ernst’s collages, however, sHE possesses a distinct feminist critique of male violence and female victimization; the placement of a bulls-eye and yawning hippopotamus in the female “s” and a handgun with an elongated barrel in the male “H” is no doubt intentional.
While Olvey’s constructions are usually self-referential they are far from self-serving. She described the work executed during her illness as a means of both utilizing the photographic medium and challenges tradition. Above all, her assemblages were an exploration of possibilities – exploring them all was a lifelong journey for Olvey that sadly ended much too soon.
William R. Thompson is the Curatorial Assistant for Twentieth-Century Art and Textiles and Costume at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.