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John Olsen: Taking refuge in beauty December 20, 2019

Angus McPherson

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Tim Olsen tells us about his father's latest exhibition, and why the 91-year-old Australian artist won't be found on the golf course.
John Olsen in the studio. Photo © Ken Redpath

John Olsen has said that his new exhibition, Recent Works, which opened last week at the Olsen Gallery in Sydney, may be his last. But that doesn’t mean the 91-year-old Australian artist is about to put down his brush.

“He’s painting right now,” his son Tim Olsen tells Limelight. “He’s in the studio every day. He says, to stop painting for me would be like to stop breathing.”

Tim, who is the founder and director of the Olsen Gallery, shares that his father was stopped on the street in Bowral, near where he lives, just the other day. “Some man said to him, ‘are you still painting?’ and he looked at him and he said, ‘Of course I am, what do you expect me to be doing, walking around a golf course?’”

“The thing about John is that he just works away every day for the love of art,” Tim says. “It’s his saviour, it’s his existence, it’s his nourishment, it’s his meditation.”

As for the inspiration behind this latest exhibition, it was all rather spontaneous, Tim explains. “He rang me and said, ‘look, I’ve done some lovely work, I think there’s enough here for a show – let’s do a show.’ And it’s turned out to be one of the most fresh and, I suppose, solid exhibitions he’s ever done.”

John Olsen’s Creek Beds and Wattle, 2019.
Courtesy of the Olsen Gallery

“When you’re 91, you can do what the F you like,” Tim says. “And that’s exactly what he’s done – and he’s produced an incredible exhibition as a result.”

The works revisit a number of ideas Olsen has explored in the past – the works have titles like Frog Spawn and Lake Eyre – Birds Leaving recalling recurring themes in the artist’s work. “But like a true master, in the same way as Matisse at the end of his life, he’s able to say more with less,” Tim says. “His sense of space, his mark-making, his general sense of being able to do a refined work, in a way, without being conscious of any market or any preconception about what he’s trying to achieve – he’s just having a bloody good time!”

“He still says to me, I still haven’t done my best drawing yet – he’s turning 92 in one month! He wakes up every day as though he’s still going to school.”

These new pieces have a certain stillness, compared with the busy detail of his earlier work. “He said to me once that knowing when to finish, or stop, when working on an artwork, is as difficult as knowing how to start,” Tim says. “He’s got to the stage where his mastery allows him to reach a point where he understands the power of the space, and that really he needs to add no more. These works are a testament of knowing when to stop.”

For Tim, there are a number of personal highlights in the exhibition. “I love Where Wattle Stains the Doubting Heart, the lovely watercolour, I love Frog Spawn, I love Chicken Noodle Soup!” he says. “The thing about John is he’s very much anti this idea that everyone should try and be international. In his early education he lived in Spain, and lived in villages, and he understood that Picasso only ever really was capturing his immediate life, and the things that he was surrounded by at the time. And John’s the same.”

These new works carry on a thread that has spun through John Olsen’s career. “John was saying the other day, with the way the world is at the moment, we’re in such chaos and the populations of the world have no control over what’s happening in the world, and that essentially we need to take refuge in beauty,” Tim says. “He finds a lot of contemporary art very cynical and, I suppose, really not wanting to see beauty as having any depth. He says that there’s a lot of substance in appreciating the beauty of the world, because that’s what we’re at most risk of losing – and ‘if I can do my best to help people see the world for what it is, through my art, and realise that the earth is worth saving, then I’ve done my little bit.’”

Recent Works is at the Olsen Gallery in Sydney until the end of January 2020

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