Recently, one of my friends directed my attention to a man whose featured art included writing short, pithy stories on post-its and display a sequence of these post-its at galleries. I asked him what made this man a visual artist and not a prose writer, as clearly the work was skewing towards prose. This friend balked. He administered an open-palm slap across my face which struck a little bit of sense into me: Joe Ovelman’s art is considered art because, down to the arrangement and execution of the pieces, there is a theatricality to everything. From the selection of appropriate post-it paper (sometimes blue, sometimes yellow) to the nature of the handwriting, there’s a lot of detail that can’t be mimicked in mass publishing. Most crudely, an analogy between Ovelman’s art and the daily entries at PostSecret seems apt. The handwriting and presentation often betray more about the speaker than the content itself. And given the shocking content of Ovelman’s narratives, it’s the modesty of the imperfect penmanship that tempers the explicit tone of his work. That’s how his work stops just shy of shock-art status and continues resonating with anyone willing to read.
“I sat down to do them 15 at a time,” Ovelman says. “I did them all on a single sheet of paper.” Currently Ovelman is in the process of taking the many distinct series of post-it stories he’s generated and forming one larger tale out of them. “It’s overwhelming,” he says over the phone before sighing. Many of these sheets deal with the conflict between his Catholic upbringing in his hometown of West Chester, PA, and sexuality — both his own and as a broader concept. And about the handwriting, which has an effortless quality about it, Ovelman says that he was inspired from when he was younger. “I was looking at the journals from my early teens and noticing the handwriting.” However, his consideration of the written word as a drawing makes sense, as our culture continues to evolve into one where everything visually accessible contains some sort of message; we’re more becoming used to “looking at images with text.”
And although his post-it series have long served as the most challenging part of Ovelman’s oeuvre, the ways in which he unpacks the complexity of these issues also include projects like “Snow Queen” (named for a 1960s Harlem-influenced expression), which refers to black men who exclusively date white men. Ovelman’s dissection of the term entails dressing up. “I rephotographed myself in drag in a Harlem apartment,” he says, “with a young black model adorning me.” Parts of an earlier version of this series have been displayed at DC-based Conner Contemporary Art, which also represents him. But as controversial his work may seem, it’s all about specificity for Ovelman. “The more specific a piece it, the more people can identify with it,” he says.
Last year, Ovelman had a show in New York’s Oliver Kamm/5BE Gallery, which featured photography set in Central Park’s Ramble — it was a mixed-media case study in cruising. But in this election year, his most stand-out work is “If I Were President.” The series features digital prints wherein Ovelman casts himself in the roles of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain in order to explore gender and race. Oddly enough, in assuming these personae, he brings an everyman vibe to the slick politicians; it’s an attitude that seems to function as his mantra. Ovelman says, without hesitation, “Art should be free and available to everyone.”