Erwin Olaf’s (b. The Netherlands, 1959) art explores the human experience through meticulously staged scenes. His distinctive aesthetic is highly stylized and perfectly polished, yet his work penetrates deep beneath a pretty facade. Instead, the heart of Olaf’s work addresses social issues, taboos, and conventions, often through subtle or mysterious details.
Simultaneously cinematic and painterly, Olaf’s photographs at first glance appear to transcend the unphotogenic realities of the world. Subjects are perfectly lit, their clothing impeccably tailored, and the built sets models of domestic achievement. Yet, glazed into this tantalizing veneer, there is often a detail—a turned head, wet eyes, a yellowed lawn—that opens a portal into a mysterious reality and emotional tension. The artist describes his creations as “a perfect world with a crack."
Olaf’s worlds are furnished by details straight from the artist’s imagination, yet they draw on visual languages from recognizable time periods and cultures.
Rain (2004), Hope (2005), Grief (2007) and Fall (2008) — which challenge myths of uncomplicated domestic bliss and postmodern liberation— are distinctively set in the American mid-century, the coiffed men and women and classically designed homes as glamorous and alluring as ever. The artist’s most recent series Berlin (2012), Shanghai (2017), and Palm Springs (2018) form a three-part project that were each shot on location, rather than in a fabricated studio environment. In this trilogy, Olaf examines internationally renowned cities undergoing seismic change, reflecting the particular emotions and neuroses of these cities and their inhabitants.
In the spring of 2019, Olaf’s work was the subject of a double exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag and The Hague Museum of Photography, as well as a solo exhibition at the Shanghai Center of Photography. His work is included in numerous private and public collections, such as the Rijksmuseum and Stedelijk Museum, both in Amsterdam,The Netherlands; Fonds National d'Art Contemporain, Paris, France; George Eastman House, Rochester, USA; and the Sir Elton John Collection, UK and USA. The artist lives and works in Amsterdam.