Simply titled Recent Works, his new exhibition includes sprawling landscapes, nuanced studies of animal life and intimate paintings based on the artist’s passion for food and cooking. Now 91, Olsen says this may be his last exhibition. Yet the artist shows little sign of slowing down.
A formidable presence for over six decades, Olsen is a painter who has forever changed how Australians see their country and its landscapes. After immersing himself in the art scenes of Paris and Spain, Olsen returned to Australia in 1960 – creating the first of his hugely influential works, based on a unique vision of the outback and its endless flux.
Olsen’s newest paintings all feature his signature combination of colour, energetic painterly vigour and exuberant gesture. For the artist, this series is an exploration of enduring themes undertaken with a fresh view. Having long held a vital place in the artist’s creative practice, poetry is an inextricable part of Olsen’s methodology and inspiration.
“Anyone who doesn’t read poetry is really limiting themselves,” says Olsen. “To truly read poetry is to find a poem that you love and leave it open on the table for a fortnight, with nothing else to read, and to absorb it fully.”
To explain his current commitment to working, he reaches for a William Butler Yeats poem, The Circus Animals’ Desertion – a reflection on past achievements, artistic inspiration and the sincerity that artists can draw upon in their autumn years.
“The new work is really just about how I feel now,” says Olsen. “I’m following the poet Yeats’ advice, which was the theme of his circus animals, and how every now and then he pulls out a circus animal.”
Gallery Founder and Director, and the artist’s son, Tim Olsen, says his father remains committed to his craft and that there’s a new sense of space in these works.
“This exhibition isn’t for anyone but himself. When I ask John why he continues to paint, he asks me What else is breathing? Painting is what gives him life,” says Tim Olsen. “In this exhibition, John is able to say more with less.”
“He has allowed more space to breathe within the work, allowed for pauses, allowed marks to be made that don’t need explaining. No one can believe that at John’s age he is still working so well and producing such refined works.”
The exhibition features a number of paintings inspired by Sydney Harbour, including a major new work titled, Harbour Surge. Having grown up in Bondi, and studied at the Julian Ashton Art School, Sydney has always been an important subject for Olsen and is a place the artist attributes with a feminine presence.
Aside from poetry, the other governing metaphor in these new works may be the authenticity of simple provincial cuisine shared among family and friends. It’s a subject reflected in paintings such as Sopa Marinara and Chicken Noodle Soup.
“Cooking, like art, is an act of love, an act of sharing,” he says.
Showing courage and tenacity, Olsen has persistently gone to work in his studio throughout a difficult past year defending his late wife’s estate in court. He says the experience hasn’t shaken his fundamentally positive view of the relationship between art and life.
“I’m still working, and this is recent work. I’m not trying to outdo the past or prove anything about the future. I’m just moved by now,” says Olsen.
John Olsen: Recent Works
Olsen Gallery, 63 Jersey Road, Woollahra (Sydney)
Exhibition continues to 1 February 2020
For more information, visit: www.olsengallery.com for details.
Image: John Olsen, Harbour Surge, 2019 oil on linen 152 x 182 cm – courtesy of the Artist and the Olsen Gallery, Sydney