John Olsen

Australian Galleries

In John Olsen’s recent exhibition, one painting stood out. Large and irrevocably dark, it appears at first like a blackboard covered by words and signs, but on closer inspection, it constitutes a double self-portrait. Popeye-like caricatures are enmeshed in a spiderweb of white lines and scrawls that make it impossible to say whether the Olsen at the right is preparing food or defecating nuggets of gold. Alchemic or gerontological, a discrimination between opposites is at the heart of the matter, for Donde Voy? (Where am I going?, 1989) is itself something of a simulacrum. If this work constitutes a meditation on the process of aging, from an artist whose work has spanned four decades, then it is also an attempt to present conflicting imperatives in coexistence. Donde Voy? is a contrived emulation of interiors in the tradition of 17th-century Spanish painting, reworked in automatist graffiti. This co-option of the appearance of spontaneity and infantilism, to a contemplative end, suggests that Olsen is wavering, for his earlier work was noted for its grace, verve, and facility. The persona that the artist now presents—surrounding himself with Guston-like debris, boots, and rubbish—is complemented by the more conventional signs of a split personality.

Whether by design or not, the other works in this exhibition suggest shipwrecked intentions. Fish and Baptism Spoon, 1990, is primarily black, but it entombs a psychedelic Magic Realist fish at its center, while vivid landscapes, like The Second Coming, 1990, stall the eye with overdetermined metaphors. Here the shape of an animal is superimposed across the surface of a maplike depiction of a desert and forced to stand in for Olsen’s idea of the land as body and its surface as skin. Contrary to what one might expect from his improvisatory method, Olsen has a fixed idea about what art, or at least its content, should be. He insists on the gentrification of sensation—its elevation and synthesis—which is at odds with the look that he has cultivated since the ’50s, when his painting was profoundly affected by Spanish abstract art by Antoni Tàpies and Antonio Saura. More recently, his production has reflected a study of aboriginal art.

Olsen is a prolific draughtsman, and he exercises this gift with a difference. His concern with observation does not result in grand views or great machines, since his essential impulse is to defile. Though he might prefer his audience to see his landscapes as mirroring the plenitude of an Other, I think that they are made more in the image of the artist as a scavenger. For Olsen seems to scrounge for recollections, gather scraps, and record rubbish. He lays down a few broad swathes of paint which he then embroiders with clusters of lines and trailing scrawls. He is interested in the experience of a microcosm more than the elimination of differences. Because he believes that this is a natural approach, he attempts to ensure that everything he makes looks utterly spontaneous. Because this is such a demanding fiction, it is only when form matches pretension, as in Donde Voy?, that the result is commensurate with the pain of its realization.

Charles Green


Both Marco Giusti’s “The Cave” (January 1991) and Maria Nadotti’s “Exits and Entrances” (March 1991) were translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.

Günther Förg’s Untitled, 1990 (Reviews, April 1991, p. 136) was printed as a horizontal panel; it is a vertical. The right-hand side of the image should be at the top.