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Artist John Olsen’s most personal exhibition to date

The Australian 28 october 2021

Ellie Dudley

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Was lockdown a productive period of time for you?

I’m based in the Southern Highlands, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful day. It’s likely to be colder than Sydney, but for us it’s perfect. I’m here in the country and I’m looking at some lovely water irises. There’s also a lake, and everything is coloured green. Nature says life is about being optimistic, so that’s what I’m being as we head into Spring and everything begins to change. You could say it’s been a very productive period of time for me here as I watch the seasons change, the flowers bloom and nature continue to sprawl out in front of me.

Why did you make the decision to display your art alongside the first exhibition of Valerie Strong’s work?

My daughter Louise has been the principal mover and very strong advocate for doing this. My previous wife [who died in 2011] was a very private person. She always had a studio. She was always encouraged by me, but she didn’t want a big stage. She didn’t aim to have a career, and in fact her work, probably, would never have been shown to a public unless Louise and Tim decided to show it. Also, she was a graduate student from the National Art School, so it’s something very, very special. I’m sure that many people will enjoy that because it’s something that is representative of a lot of artists whose names we have never heard of, who would have slipped away from the horizon.

How would you describe her work?

The scale of her artwork is very small. In the exhibition area at the moment are paintings of mine which are three metres by two metres, but hers are just like the cover of a hand. What comes out of that is very beautiful. Softness, femininity, delicate, very, very good.

What inspired the collection of work you are showing?

I’ve always been entranced by a particular painting called The Drowning Dog by Goya. It’s a very strange picture because the dog’s head is right at the bottom of the painting, and he’s pointing his head upwards. There is this vast emptiness, this vast void, which seems to me that the picture is about questioning. What’s going to happen? Why are we in this particular position? It’s a very challenging painting, and something so very different from the canon of Western art.

You recently said, “At the age of 93, I ­became entranced with the dark side. Not in a mournful sense, but a sense of inquiry”. What did you mean by that?

In terms of Taoist philosophy, there is a sign, called Yin and Yang. There’s a dark side and there’s a white side. If you ask someone, “What’s coming forward, the dark or the white?” If they say the black, then you say, ‘Oh, it could be the white, have another look’. Then, they can see that the white is coming forward. What I take from that, is that emptiness is as full as fullness. It also ties into my fascination with Lake Eyre. The lake could be full of water, and the next time it’s completely empty. The lake is like an inland sea, when you’re on the edge of something approaching from the air, and you look across this vast emptiness of which you can’t see the end.

The National Art School, Sydney, is showing John Olsen: Goya’s Dog from October 29 to November 27 and Valerie Marshall Strong Olsen – A rare sensibility from November 6 to 27. For a virtual tour of Goya’s Dog visit nas.edu.au/john-olsen-goyas-dog/


 

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