Renowned as one of Australia’s pre-eminent artists over the past several decades, John Olsen is an essentially abstract artist whose paintings nevertheless remain grounded in a response to his immediate environment.
As his oft quoted phrase ‘I am in the landscape and the landscape is in me’ affirms, the artist is keenly aware of the immersive, reciprocal and irrevocable interrelationship between his sense of self and his sense of place.
Having already lived in, travelled through and absorbed many different parts of the country, in July 1981, the artist and his partner Noela Hjorth moved to Clarendon in the Adelaide Hills. As Deborah Hart observes, this relocation resulted in a series of paintings that harked back to the vitalist impulses of his works of the early 1960s which expressed: ‘the landscape as a living, pulsing organism suggestive of animalistic shapes and biological forms; of landscape not as a static factor but as process, not only seen but felt’. This description vividly captures the vitality and exuberance encountered in Clarendon bedtime story (1981) in which a broad view across a sweeping horizon line is populated with lively marks and lyrical gestures which animate the scene with movement and energy. The painting captures the twilight period in which the searching, tentacular rays of the sun make way for the rising crescent moon and all is suffused in the milky blue light of the crepuscular sky where nothing is quite as it seems. Although the division between earth and sky and the summary notations and daubs of paint which suggest trees, clouds and stars evoke the qualities of an actual vista, the fantastical, gravity defying figures and forms which seem to tumble and rush down the steep, diagonal sloping horizon/hillside, suggest we are in the realm of an imaginary landscape. As the title suggests, the picture is telling a story, one which includes familiar lines from nursery rhymes such as the ‘cow jumped over the moon’ and the ‘dish ran away with the spoon’, alongside incidental squiggles and blobs suggesting ambiguous creatures of sheer invention. In the paintings of Olsen, we encounter a world of relativity and flux in which fantasy and reality, night and day, the infinite and the intimate are joyously entangled together in a living tapestry.
- Deborah Hart, John Olsen, , Sydney: Craftsman House, 2000, p. 153.