The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

work of any sort of de­lib­er­ate or pro­gram­matic adop­tion of ab­strac­tion, or of a de­ter­mined avoid­ance of rep­re­sen­ta­tion and fig­u­ra­tion. In re­al­ity Olsen’s works are full of fig­u­ra­tive de­tails and mo­tifs, some­times re­call­ing the naive scrawls of art brut, and of­ten adopt­ing the over­all form of a land­scape.

One of the most telling parts of the ex­hi­bi­tion is the dis­play of his di­aries, which tell us a great deal about both the man and the artist. There is his ev­i­dent love of travel, his ob­ser­va­tions about places, of­ten in the Mediter­ranean, that ap­peal to him. There are many notes about friends and fel­low artists, which — un­like the di­aries of Mike Parr I men­tioned a few weeks ago — al­ways seem to have been writ­ten with the thought they might be seen one day by the in­ter­ested par­ties.

But what is most strik­ing is Olsen’s ir­re­press­ible love of draw­ing. There are sketches of peo­ple in bars, and strangers — of­ten satir­i­cal and drawn with the car­toon­ist’s graphic flair — and of fel­low artists, all of the lat­ter re­spect­ful like the writ­ten com­men­taries. One, for ex­am­ple, is of James Glee­son, ap­par­ently af­ter Olsen was in­vited to present him with a prize (which he duly notes was well-de­served). Above all, there is the sense of some­one who draws in­stinc­tively and whose im­me­di­ate re­sponse to see­ing some­thing in­ter­est­ing or pic­turesque is to sketch it.

And this love of draw­ing ex­presses it­self di­rectly in some of Olsen’s best-known im­agery, in his draw­ings of frogs and other an­i­mals, a selec­tion of which oc­cu­pies one room of the ex­hi­bi­tion. These draw­ings have an affin­ity with the forms that an­i­mate his larger paint­ings. But they do make us won­der why he did not at­tempt some more am­bi­tious fig­u­ra­tive com­po­si­tions. Per­haps, for all his love of draw­ing and his gift for graphic ex­pres­sion, he had noth­ing to say on a larger scale in a fig­u­ra­tive id­iom.

Partly it may be that Olsen never planned his work in the sense of con­ceiv­ing an over­all com­po­si­tional struc­ture, but sim­ply made it up, as it were, as he went along. Bor­row­ing Paul Klee’s for­mu­la­tion about tak­ing a line for a walk, he spoke of tak­ing a line for a hol­i­day: in that sense each of his works is like an im­pro­vi­sa­tion, and it is not sur­pris­ing that he re­calls paint­ing the ceil­ing of art dealer Frank McDon­ald’s din­ing room while lis­ten­ing to Louis Arm­strong.

This ceil­ing and an­other, dis­played hang­ing as orig­i­nally in­tended above the head of view­ers, who can re­cline on spe­cially made seats to ad­mire them, are some of his most suc­cess­ful works. In­ter­est­ingly, although planned from the be­gin­ning on re­mov­able pan­els, they were ex­e­cuted in situ and painted stand­ing un­der­neath.

This is ob­vi­ously far less com­fort­able than work­ing on a ver­ti­cal sur­face, but at the same time more ef­fec­tive if the artist wants to have the sense of paint­ing a sky. Be­cause Olsen is such an in­tu­itive and in­stinc­tive artist, it was prob­a­bly vi­tal for him to paint them this way. From below and look­ing up, he evokes the al­most ec­static ex­pe­ri­ence of paint­ing the sun in the heav­ens.

This whole process can­not fail to make one think of the con­trast with Olsen’s slightly older con­tem­po­rary Jef­frey Smart, who died — it is hard to be­lieve — a lit­tle over three years ago. As a man Smart was, like Olsen, a lover of life, but he could not have been more dif­fer­ent as an artist. He was me­thod­i­cal and con­sid­ered; com­po­si­tions were care­fully planned and re­searched, sketches of real mo­tifs were ex­e­cuted and stud­ies of the pro­vi­sional and fi­nal com­po­si­tions were painted and of­ten in­cluded in the later ex­hi­bi­tions.

In a sense Smart was an in­tel­lec­tual artist, although he never al­lowed ide­o­log­i­cal or the­o­ret­i­cal ideas to dis­tract him from an es­sen­tially in­tu­itive sense of suit­able sub­ject mat­ter and ap­pro­pri­ate painterly style. And he cer­tainly never at­tempted to ex­plain the mean­ing of his work or of his choice of sub­ject mat­ter, know­ing very well that an artist ar­tic­u­lates what he has to say in the work it­self. But he had an un­fail­ing sense of the­matic con­sis­tency from which he sel­dom, if ever, de­vi­ated.

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