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VISUAL ARTS ‌ Face Off

J.J. Ohlinger takes a wayward look at local faces in his new solo show

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J.J. Ohlinger brings his idiomatic portraiture to the City Gallery this week
  • J.J. Ohlinger brings his idiomatic portraiture to the City Gallery this week
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On view through Sept. 21
Open reception Fri. Aug. 25, 4:30-6:30 p.m.
Free
City Gallery at Dock Street Theatre
133 Church St., 724-7305

People love J.J. Ohlinger's legs. In fact, they've proved popular enough to be licensed as snowboard designs and displayed in several galleries. Ohlinger is a thoughtful, diligent guy in his mid-30s who seems faintly bemused by the attention his work receives these days. He shouldn't be — he's spent eight years in professional illustration and painting, working on everything from Grateful Dead T-shirts to dog art, and has contributed art to galleries and private collections across the U.S. and in the U.K.

Ohlinger is also an ideas man, admired by local artgoers for his innovative shows. In 2004 he locked himself in his Umbedingt Gallery for a day with fellow artist Austin Center for 24-Hour Art, painting together until they were let out for a "25th Hour" viewing and celebration. His Art by the Foot was an 8-by-36-foot collaboration with Toby Penney during 2005's Spoleto Festival. After completion, it was cut into square feet and auctioned off. All the brainwaves and brio have finally paid off, and Ohlinger has reached a level where he can actually do what he loves for a living.

Below a pair of furry caterpillar eyebrows, his blue eyes shine with that passion, squinting slightly when he smiles. The tops of his ears are angled back some, and he often sports a close-cropped beard. But while these features are accentuated in some of his self portraits, his legs have also kept him busy.

"A lot of my figure painting has gone down well," says the artist. The subject of those paintings is often a pair of female legs, with the upper half of the model out of frame or obscured in Hitchcockian shadow. This technique forces the viewer to study the limbs in more detail than usual. He uses dynamic perspective to emphasize a toenail paint job in "Lisa I," and takes an even tighter view of "Tansy," whose knees are accentuated.

These tasteful glimpses of the female form share similarities with John Carroll Doyle's black-and-white photos, collected in his Femininity book. Like Doyle, Ohlinger has also worked as a graphic artist and illustrator.

"My graphic art definitely affected my more personal work, layout-wise," says Ohlinger. "I'm always looking at composition." That's apparent from his most recent body of work, a series of cropped watercolor and ink portraits that don't quite fit on the frame. Instead, he depicts certain parts of his subject — a pair of eyes and a nose, for example, or the mouth and chin. If Sergio Leone had devoted a decade to realist painting, he might have come up with this fistful of mugshots.

"I've always enjoyed doing portraits and I wanted to come up with my own way of doing them," Ohlinger says. "We all see hundreds of people a day, but we don't necessarily pay attention to what they look like." Encouraged by the success of his leg paintings, the artist concentrated on distinctive features, asking, "What shape is the mouth? Does the nose flare, or are the eyes squinty?" The cropping encourages viewers to pay attention to what's there and imagine the rest.

In his glossy-tinged, flattering portraits he makes his subjects look charismatic, catching their quirks without resorting to caricature. He's receiving enough commissions these days to pay his way with them, phasing out some of his graphic work. "I love painting the faces and I'll be sticking with that," he says. "It's a theme I can go back to. My goal is just to keep painting."

In order to do that, he's gone outside of Charleston, admitting that he's had far more luck beyond his home city. He hopes that two upcoming shows will change that. Next week his About Face will fill the City Gallery at the Dock Street Theatre with modest portraits, followed in October by an exhibition at Robert Lange Studios — same series, different scale. Ohlinger's going back and forth from the 8-by-36-foot square Dock Street noggins to 3-by-4-foot foot ones for RLS. The different shows will allow him to play on the level of detail in each image, as well as proving his own artistic range.

Next up for Ohlinger are more commissions and more traveling. He'd also like to do another residency next year, following up a 2005 stint in Lake Placid, N.Y., where he painted some effectively moody landscapes. "The best thing about Lake Placid," he chuckles, "is that cell phones don't work there."

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