Menzies Art Brands



It goes without saying that John Olsen, at the age of ninety, is one of Australias most recognised and recognisable living artists, loved by the public and the art industry alike. Still exhibiting regularly, he attends public appearances, openings and speeches that would leave someone half his age feeling weary. While those artists who flew high before they crashed and burned when still young are the stuff of legend, so too are those who carried their creativity and energy into old age. Picasso (1881-1973), Monet (1840-1926) and Matisse (1869-1954) worked until they dropped, while locally many artists, such as Lloyd Rees (1895-1988) and Nora Heysen (1911-2003), have worked into their nineties. That of course is the nature of art, a calling and an occupation that neither palls nor is redundant no matter the age.

Olsen spent the first seven years of his life in Newcastle, then a gritty industrial city dominated by the BHP Steelworks and the hundreds of small engineering and service businesses that grew in its shadow. Newcastle has always had a strangely split personality, a place where the smoke and grit of a thousand chimneys jostled hard on a shore of beautiful cliffs and beaches fronting the blue Pacific. It was just sixty miles, but a world away, from Sydneys Bondi Beach where the Olsens moved in 1935. In later years, Olsen professed a preference for the jumbled chaos of his birthplace over the sparkling beach of Bondi.

In 1957, after a busy early career as a working artist and illustrator, Olsens talent and hard work were rewarded with a private scholarship to work overseas, with the unusual and significant proviso that his studies not be pursued in the UK.  Working initially in Paris, he soon moved on to Spain where he spent the next two years absorbing all he could of its colour and vibrant culture. As an adjunct to his painting, Olsen also undertook training as a chef, an occupation that would cross over with his art for the rest of his life.

While Olsen had dabbled with abstract expressionism before leaving Sydney, on his return he exhibited a powerful new style that had the vigour and immediacy of the American original, but with an overlay of literary allusion and an element of subjective realism, no matter how stretched and attenuated that might be. His works of the early 1960s were a revelation to his Sydney audience, being very from the safe modernism of the most popular painters of the day, Russell Drysdale (1912-1981) and William Dobell (1899-1970) and that of his former teachers Godfrey Miller (1893-1964) and John Passmore (1914-2004). Great swirling compositions of bold graphic lines, often in black or a contrasting splash of Spanish gold, danced across massive canvases of a size still new in this country. While most paintings were still being made for the domestic market, where a relatively modest scale was in demand, Olsen dazzled gallery visitors with a scale and drama that could not be ignored. There was no attempt at creating form in the traditional sense, where solid masses are built up from carefully shaded elements of light and dark. Olsen used relatively small brushes, given the scale of his canvases, drawing vigorously at arms length. Neither did he carefully work up a design from a prepared sketch, but rather proceeded in a full frontal attack on the canvas. Drips and splashes were all part of the process, evidence of the spontaneity of creation. These works exhibited the confidence and a surety of touch that was essential if such bold creations were not to degenerate into a tangled mess.

Olsen drew incessantly, filling sketchbooks with studies of the natural world that would be mined for ideas and motifs. A trip to Lake Eyre in 1975 brought the special moment of seeing the lake filled with water for just the second time since European settlement. Over time he returned to watch the lake return to its usual dry state, all the while making studies both of the vast stretches of salt and the tiny details of the waterside plants and animals along its shrinking shoreline. The Lake Eyre experience had a profound effect on Olsens art, providing a bold contrast between the macro and micro, the gleaming white plain that stretched to the horizon and the tiny plants, insects and animals that required intimate study and attention. At times he viewed the vast lake from above, responding with large paintings that saw tiny detailed studies clinging to the edge of a glaring white canvas. At other times the frogs and birds, lizards and beetles became his primary subject, especially in the prints and drawings that he made alongside the major paintings.

Such was John Olsens grasp of scale that he was commissioned to produce a number of major murals and ceiling paintings, culminating in the extraordinary Five Bells for the Sydney Opera House. He was able to choose both the site and the theme for the twenty-one metre work, like many of his subjects inspired by literature and storytelling. Even in a work of such scale, he plays off space against intimate detail and spontaneous brushwork. For Olsen, it is never a matter of filling in between the lines, rather when a form is required, it is built up from overlapping strokes from a small brush. Calligraphy is essential to Olsens painting, the idea of a line existing for its own sake, rather than being the container or delineator of a larger form. That style of working stayed with him, no matter the subject or the intent of the work. Even the two notable self-portraits that were exhibited in the Archibald Prize, which he won in 2005, are archetypes of the loose linear explorations on which his paintings are built.

In his recent works, Olsen continues that exploration of the large and small, the destabilising play of elements that leave the viewer guessing. The Bath, Early Morning, Bondi is one such work, a playful take on a seemingly mundane domestic subject. An old iron bath with the accoutrements of a past life fills the large canvas, giving it an importance beyond its humble purpose. Are we waiting for a bather, one of Bonnards (1867-1947) young girls ready to fill its blue depths? Or is it just another small ritual in the life of a boarding house refugee? The scale is however deceptive at one moment it is simply an old bath, or is it in fact one of the many ocean pools that dot the coast from Newcastle down to Bronte? In the vernacular they were always the baths, both a place to swim but also a chance to freshen up for generations of workers living in cottages with only the crudest of facilities. The colour too adds to the ambiguity, the blue-green of the ocean shallows seemingly home to a swarm of bluebottles, the scourge of the summer beaches. The ancient shower head drips blue tentacles, just like the dreaded jellyfish while the old tap at the foot of the bath could easily be mistaken for Olsens signature tree frog, resplendent in blue rather than his native green. Particularly taken with the subject, Olsen has made a number of explorations of this simple motif, drawn to its odd mix of domestic ritual and, for a brief moment, indulgence in the simplest of pleasures.

Gavin Fry  BA [Hons], MA, MPhil



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