Last week while my Mum was visiting Sydney we were able to go along to the John Olsen retrospective exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW. My knowledge of John Olsen’s work was limited before going. I had seen his work in documentaries and books but I probably wouldn’t have remembered his name if I saw his work in front of me. I knew though that he was an important part of our Australian art history so I decided we should definitely go and take a look.
I stand more on the side of realist and traditional art but I have an appreciation for the abstract and contemporary too. My first impressions of Olsen’s work was that it was messy and busy and childlike but as I looked closer and read the plaques on the wall I loved the explanation of the work, that Olsen sees the landscape as a nervous system where everything is connected. As we went through the exhibition we noticed the progression of the work as well as the way it changed as he moved from one place to another. The landscapes changed from urban citiscapes to a response to the dryness of the Australian countryside. His works on Lake Eyre are especially engaging for me much more so than the urban works.
We loved being able to hear him speak about the exhibition in the video at the end, he seems like a lovely happy man and I know that he has stated that for those who come to the exhibition he would like them to take away optimism. His works are quite amazing and I must admit that I did take away optimism from the show but it was much more from Olsen himself. You cannot but listen to him and smile.
One other funny thing which happened while walking through the space. In the first half of the exhibition I said to Mum that his works bring to mind another Australian artist, Fred Williams. I have seen his work at the National Art Gallery in Canberra. I even brought up a couple of his works on my phone and showed them to Mum. I was quite chuffed then when we walked into the section about his time at Dunmoochin, a property in Victoria to find out that he and Fred Williams knew each other.
In summary, the connection to the changing landscape (especially in the desert) and the influence of aboriginal art are obvious. His work most definitely has continuity and yet evolves over time. It seems that Olsen sees the world differently to everyone else, he sees the way that things are connected and the playfulness of the works speak volumes to what I can see of his character. I would recommend visiting for yourself if you have the opportunity, even if you don’t like what you see at the start of the exhibition, he will grow on you and you will go away with exactly what he hoped for, optimism.