John Okulick (born 1947) is esteemed for his abstract sculpture and spatial experimentation. His works address concepts of man and machine, pictorial flatness and depth, and representational motion within abstraction. Alternately hailed as an “extension of Cubism,” as a postmodern illusionist, and even as a sci-fi-age maverick, Okulick creates fascinatingly complex shape-pieces that are as visually dynamic as they are beautiful to look at.
Born in 1947 in New York City to first-generation Russian and Italian parents, John Okulick moved all over the country as a child while his father was in the military. His family eventually settled in southern California, where Okulick went on to receive a B.A. from UC Santa Barbara and an M.F.A. from UC Irvine. Okulick’s overlapping interests in art and carpentry gradually bloomed into career aspirations, and he started making sculptures out of a small studio in Costa Mesa, California. He proved to be a prodigious talent. Before he finished his graduate work at UC, he had already had his art exhibited at two solo shows—one at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York and one at the Jack Glenn Gallery in Corona del Mar, California.
Following his initial success, Okulick moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s. He settled in Santa Monica with his wife and two children. Later, he purchased and began working out of a larger studio in Venice.
Initially, Okulick worked with painted wood and readymade materials, both of which he still uses today in concert with other media including metal. In the 1970s his sculpture typically looked like abstract wooden boxes or x-shapes, sometimes painted in colorful checkerboard patterns. By the early 1980s, he had begun to make wall-pieces, complex three-dimensional tapestries of shapes that are somewhere between sculptures, paintings, and puzzles. To create them, Okulick started with drawings, and then carefully designed interlocking configurations of forms that would look like his sketch when viewed head-on. In these wall-pieces, which went on to include Water’s Edge (1986), the shapes seem to jut forward farther than they physically do, and to recede into the space of the wall—a physical impossibility, but convincingly masked by Okulick’s optical illusions.
Since Okulick’s first shows, critics have noted his works’ unique angular energy and spatial contortionism, achieved through a combination of geometric and mechanical forms, as well as through his use of ungraded colors that do not conform to traditional chiaroscuro-based spatial illusion. A review of his show at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in 1986 praised his style as a “contemporary extension of Cubism” that “questions received wisdom pertaining to the representation of objects in space.” But although Okulick’s semi-abstract style has earned comparisons to the purism of Ferdinand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant, his art has never been only abstract or academic. Okulick’s formal play is as much human as it is mechanical. The wall-pieces have a representational quality, belied by their abstract appearance but still visible. For instance, he uses “strands of raffia” that “seem as clean and beautiful as freshly washed hair,” as well as overall compositions that resemble eyes or even whole human figures. Sometimes the overlap of man and machine is present through absence: in Water’s Edge, empty stairs invite the spectator to walk into the distorted space of the work, implicitly pulling a human presence into the geometry.
Okulick’s mid-1980s wall-pieces are a clear highpoint in his spatial experimentation. They are crowded but not jumbled: each piece serves a specific spatial function, sometimes lifting its neighboring shapes upwards, sometimes pulling them back into the wall depending on the way the forms intersect. Okulick’s precise articulation of each junction between the shapes results in a complex mass that seems to be floating. The space between the pieces adds to the floating sensation. The works feel light and airy.
Although they vary in form, Okulick’s 1980s works were consistent in their human-mechanical themes and their elliptical feel—elliptical in the sense of a felt absence or spacey-ness, as well as in the sense of an oval shape. But while his vision in the 1980s was consistent, it was far from stagnant. In fact, Water’s Edge itself represents a major turning point in Okulick’s artistic vision. He was moving away from a predominantly geometric style towards new, visibly anthropomorphic forms that more aggressively mixed man and machine. In Water’s Edge one can still see the elliptical configuration typical of Okulick’s 1980s work, but the piece’s limb-like protruding staircases and wood planks give the piece a uniquely human sensibility that hints at Okulick’s experiments in the 1990s.
In recent years, Okulick has pared down his pieces, opting for unpainted wood and metal arranged in black-and-beige patterns. He has also created a number of large, public, site-specific works, in various cities including Los Angeles. Since the 1970s he has been featured in over 100 exhibitions, including 30 solo shows, and his work is on view at a number of prominent museums and galleries in the U.S. He continues to live and work in California.