Kenneth Baker, San Francisco Chronicle, April 27, 2013:

...Olson’s pieces...achieve a sort of ringing silence such as we might imagine belonging to light itself.”

Mikko Lautamo,, May 3, 2016:


In computer programming there’s something called a “magic number.”  It’s a tiny piece of information embedded in a file that indicates its contents.  Penny Olson, a photographer who takes highly reduced images of everyday objects and reprocesses them into luminescent, plaid prints, appears to be searching for a similar kind of identifier when she strips photographs down to their digital essences. What remains in the print is a ghost, an afterimage with the aura but not the specificity of the source. 


Concrete 4012, one of three prints on view,is situated near a large window that casts bluish daylight on the floor and on the piece.  To the right and above are gallery lights that cast a yellow-white light. The piece reflects this subtle gradation from blue to beige to white exactly in line with the lights.  The phenomenon is somewhat akin to a Robert Irwin disc installation in that the print partially dissolves into the space around it. With her pixel-level manipulations, Olson has uncovered a digital DNA, a reusable “barcode” reference to the type of light present in the gallery at a particular place and time.


On an opposite wall, Concrete 3378 does something similar, but because the curtains are drawn, the light is amber-tinged. The gold-metallic paper and red rust lines on this print magnify the effect of the altered lighting, making it seem like the dusk to Concrete 4012’s dawn.


...the main aesthetic evoked is that of the pale, understated grids of Agnes Martin. Like Martin, Olson proposes bare abstraction, free of discernible references. The difference is that she arrives at it by grinding a photo down into lines and hues. Olson’s stated goal is to explore how the computer “sees,” and to understand how her digital tools and processes alter an image. In this regard, she stands at the forefront of a group of digital and Internet-focused artists (Doug Rickard, Trevor Paglen, Penelope Umbrico and Douglas Coupland) who are attempting to discern what it means to represent the world in 1s and 0s.  


In the meantime it's easy savor the sly humor of a body of work that portrays a gallery within a gallery. Machines make it possible, but the subtlety of it is something only humans can grasp.

Penny Olson: “From the Floor” @ Chandra Cerrito Contemporary through May 26, 2016.

From the Floor Installation view Chandra Cerrito Contemporary, 2016.

David M. Roth,, June 11. 2011:

... At first glance her pictures bring to mind color-saturated versions of Agnes Martin’s tightly drawn grids — or at least her unframed inkjet prints do; the ones Olson sandwiches between sheets of cast resin present a more luminous vision of the same source material, looking as if it had ripened in a Petri dish and then been set out in the sun. The actual sources for these images are straight digital photos of landscapes and flowers from which the artist extracts slivers measuring a scant 1 pixel x one two hundred fortieth of an inch. These she stacks vertically and horizontally to form grids that are, somewhat ironically, a bit like the plaid paintings Emerson made some years back.  

That technology moves us both forward and backward is odd, but seems to be a fact of life. Almost from the time the photography was invented, artists, in an attempt to make mechanical reproduction appear painterly, have been altering their negatives every which way. And while digital photography has certainly made the task easier, the challenge of wresting meaning from fragments has never diminished.  A good example is Gerhard Richter’s monumental photo-based mural, Strontium, on view in the lobby of the de Young Museum.  Using deep sampling it attempts to depict the reality of atomic particles, but only succeeds in making it even more unfathomable. Olson, using a similar method, attempts to inject new meaning (and a similar sense of blurry wonderment) into digitally reconstructed photographs. She fills hers full of rich, nature-based associations that bridge the gap between high modernist practice and the fast-evolving digital future, one in which essences once described by carbon and water are now represented in binary terms: as ones and zeros.

Flowers and Water, installation view, JayJay, 2011

Michal Gavish, //

Theodora Varnay Jones and Penny Olson at Stanford Art Spaces

Posted on April 30, 2015

In a new exhibition at Stanford University, Bay area painter Theodora Varnay Jones and photographer Penny Olson are transforming hi-tech objects into art. Connecting their existing practices to artistic explorations of science and technology, the two artists collected computer chips at the Nano fabrication Facility in the Paul G. Allen building. Stanford Art Spaces curator, DeWitt Cheng, installed their artworks on the outer walls of the facility in which they were fabricated, endowing the technological inventions with new formalities.

Varnay Jones encases her set of chips in layers of small round drawings and paintings based on their gridded surfaces. Partially obscured, each chip resembles a jewel, set in elegant precision at the circular center. The chips retain their technological qualities as they are distilled to ephemeral abstraction. Varnay Jones arranges these round encasements behind etched Plexiglas in horizontal pairs, creating a continuous showcase of round-framed geometric objects. Viewing this leveled progression of flat-sheathed chips becomes an excavation process. The multiple patterned circles add up to intriguing sequences of undecipherable codes, referencing their art-historical connection to mathematical origins of Constructivist language.

Penny Olson takes pictures of the same computer chips. Her photographs are illusive, appearing like three-dimensional holograms of multilayered grids floating in an unresolved phase. Speaking about her process, Olson explains that she digitally “condenses” the high-resolution photographs until the image of the chip converges into a blurred impression of stacked geometrical grids. These structures return to early influences on Olson’s work such as ancient weaving while the magical spaces that she creates in her soft edged lines, bring to mind modernist influences of Gerhard Richter and contemporary photographers like Michal Rovner.

Next to these new works of the two artists, Cheng installed their older works, creating small personal retrospectives of their technologically–related practices. Layered panels by Varnay Jones survey her invented coded language of circular signs. These works narrate the timeline of her practice of creating mathematically based abstractions of intermediate dimensionality between volume and flatness. Next to the new and updated Nano fabrication Facility, Olson’s works from the late 1980’s give homage to older technologies such as manual image manipulation with photocopies. These photos set a preface for her interest in technological forms. Together, these old works create a continuation and establish a progression timeline of the works of the two artists.

The exhibition continues at the adjacent Packard building, where current works by the two artists are shown among permanent displays of the first electron microscopes and early computer chips that were developed at Stanford since the 1950s. Like the electron microscope designed to investigate our visual field, the works are series of visual artistic experiments. Such is a series of dry clay reliefs that Varnay Jones exhibits next to the early prototypes of electron microscopy. Next to the old scientific instruments, the works seem to be arranged like experimental sampling of microscopic images, where each panel becomes an abstract composition of natural cracking patterns. The visual exploration evolves in parallel in a series of elongated color photographs by Olson. Her panoramic phone-camera prints create colorful formal conversations questioning the integrity of the photographic visual field. In this scientific environment the art works become sets or scientific data, that draws the viewer to survey and examine them. Retaining their original freshness as visual exercises, these series connect the artistic and scientific processes of visual exploration.

The strength of the show is in its site-specific installation at the historic Stanford engineering buildings, although the spreading of the exhibit over such a large area is sometime hard to follow. Still, the focus on the particular presentation of art related to chip technology in the actual building where it was invented and is now is now fabricated makes it compelling. The entire show is complex, apposing contemporary art and science to historical displays, connecting the art to grand moments in science. These connections are established precisely and modestly through the consistent pursuit of Varney Jones and Olson, giving new meaning and abstracted formality to the scientific results. In a wider context, located at the center of Silicon Valley, this show marvels in technology and celebrates in unironic freshness the creative scientific momentum diffusing into art.

Installation view, Photonics, (Wafer Series) Stanford Art Spaces, Stanford University, 2015

...While…[she]…takes her general approach from science, or at least its methodological cousin in art, minimalism…[Olson] transcends the Spartan rigor of that movement by imbuing its abstract, non-metaphorical  framework with philosophical and environmental concerns. The scholar David Nye coined the term, “the technological sublime,” to speak of Americans’ justifiable feelings of awe before engineered achievements ..The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke declared, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” … Olson adopts the processes and procedures of scientific inquiry but make of it something magical.

from The Technological Sublime by Dewitt Cheng

Artweek March 18, 2015

Wafer 319, 2015