John Olsen (born 1928) first encountered the Simpson Desert when he flew over Lake Eyre, to its immediate south, in 1975. Twelve months of flooding rains had transformed the lake – ordinarily a parched, desolate saltpan – into a veritable oasis, teeming with flora and birdlife. The trip resulted in some of Olsen’s most celebrated evocations of the Australian landscape. As Deborah Hart observes:
For Olsen, the lake […] was a place of contradictions, of life and death, fullness and emptiness. Here he could celebrate the “festival of life” in the myriads of creatures in and around the lake, and direct his vital, calligraphic lines into the long, pulsating channels and rivers which travelled through hundreds of kilometres of desert towards Lake Eyre.1
One of the most important works of this series is The Simpson Desert Approaching the Void (1976), its title bearing clear similarities to the present work. Accordingly, both compositions are dominated by a morass of pulsating lines, edging their way upwards to meet the lake’s salt-crusted periphery. In Simpson Desert Touches the Void (2005), however, the once-fertile waters of Lake Eyre have receded, leaving behind a bowl-like vacuum. The work’s more restricted ochre palette contrasts vividly with the mellow greens and yellows of the earlier scene. While the 1976 version shows spoonbills frolicking in the brackish waters, the 2005 painting is seemingly devoid of life. The saltpan’s sun-bleached expanses are permeated only by tendril-like channels of desert sand.
Though clearly acknowledging the precarious nature of life in the dry, Olsen’s desert pictures are never despondent. Rather, they are a ‘celebration of life forces’,2 resulting from the artist’s physical and spiritual immersion in the landscape. As the artist explains to his friend, journalist Janet Hawley:
Drysdale’s desert pictures are almost like looking at stage machinery, so dramatic and theatrical. Fred Williams is always standing back with the horizon level slightly up. Nolan is often flying over it. But I’m more intimate, juicy and mucking in with the landscape, getting into bed with it full-on… how like me, darling!
Olsen’s ability to simultaneously convey the intricacy and immensity of the Australian landscape is on full display in the present work. Abandoning the horizon line, Olsen transports the viewer upwards, laying forth an expansive, map-like overlay of the scene. At the same time, we are seemingly plunged into an arterial network of channels and gorges meandering across the picture plane. Olsen’s signature drawing-in-paint technique, encompassing a broad array of media, conveys a vivid sense of movement and fecundity.
A central feature of Simpson Desert Meets the Void is Olsen’s use of negative space: the emptiness occasioned by the desiccated lakebed is integral to the composition as a whole. This pictorial device in Olsen’s oeuvre stems from an unlikely source in Eastern philosophy, the artist having noted in his journal: ‘Remember the Tao – the jug is made of clay but the use of the jug is in its emptiness.’4 Olsen’s art, then, is one of paradox, where things acquire meaning only in the presence of their opposite.
In Simpson Desert Meets the Void, the artist reapproaches a familiar subject with maturity and self-assuredness, while still retaining the brilliance of his original vision. As Barry Pearce attests, ‘A lot of older painters run out of steam and ideas, and get into a formulaic pattern, but that never happens with Olsen. His enthusiasm seems inexhaustible and the world is always fresh to him.’5
Catherine Baxendale, B. Phil (Hons)
1. Hart, D., John Olsen, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1991, p.133
2. Grishin, S., Australian Art: A History, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2013, p.391
3. Hawley, J., Artists in Conversation, The Slattery Media Group, Melbourne, 2012, p.32
4. Hart, D., John Olsen, p.133
5. Hawley, J., Artists in Conversation, p.32