Say hello to John Olsen
TO JOHN OLSEN
Since his birth in 1928, John Olsen has tested the limits of his individual style, continually expanding his visual language through experimentation with materials and visits to new places and cultures. Raised in Newcastle in the midst of the Great Depression, his decision to become an artist was not an easy one, yet his commitment was evident at the first step, when he supported himself as a cleaner whilst attending the Julian Ashton Art School under the teacher John Passmore.
A defining aspect of Olsen’s work is the way he imagines the world from the perspective of other creatures. At various times, we see the bird’s eye view of an inland lake; a wattle bird feeding in on native flowers; or a frog’s immersion in a small pond. In doing so, he enables a shift in our own imagination, to try to understand the world from an animal’s perspective.
Olsen’s work displays a steadfast commitment to Australian landscape and culinary themes. Adhering to the idea of Heraclitus that one “never steps into the same river twice”, Olsen continually refines his work by revisiting these subjects. His immersion in the Australian landscape is legendary, with long periods spent in remote areas including Cape York, the Bungle Bungle Ranges and Lake Eyre.
Olsen’s love for the imagery of animals feeding in the natural landscape is also echoed in an ongoing series of culinary works. The artist’s experience of travelling to Spain and Portugal in the fifties and experiencing the wonders of Mediterranean food has become a defining influence for this body of work. Through the depiction of the traditional dish of paella, where different components swirl together in a round dish, Olsen also offers us a clue to the way cooking is in itself an artform. In many of the culinary works, the kitchen table is depicted as the focal point of the home.
Although the artist chooses to paint only landscapes from the Australian environment in which he has immersed himself, he shares with us his travel stories to other places through poetry, diary writings and watercolours. An expedition to Africa in the eighties for example, yielded a series of giraffes and monkeys, some delicately rendered on Japanese torinoko paper.
Surveying the artist’s career, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the many exhibitions in state galleries; the paintings held in key collections; the major commissions in buildings such as the Sydney Opera House; the Archibald Prize or the Australia Day Honours. Yet the real gift of Olsen’s work is the way he creates works that, over time, reveal a layered and nuanced understanding of both geographical and domestic landscapes. In doing so, he offers a joyous affirmation of the life of all creatures.