John Olsen, Five bells, 1963.

John Olsen, Five bells, 1963.


Despite being one of Australia's most celebrated living artists, my main motivation in going to the latest exhibition of his work at the NGV: Ian Potter Centre was a sense of obligation. I don't visit the Australian Centre very often, with my interests leaning towards the exhibits held at the International Centre on St Kilda Road. While I am a colourful person, and Olsen's work definitely shows an expressive and energetic explosion of colour, I felt a distinct barrier to his work. 

I took my mother with me, and while she has an appreciation for art, she sometimes finds going to exhibitions with me intimidating. Her friends tell her that she should be intimidated by going to a gallery with me. This is largely because I have acquired quite the reputation for being 'arty'. I had a chance to add visual arts to my undergraduate degree, but regrettably I didn't take it, but I have still always maintained an artistic focus in my study, my life and my own art practice. One of the reasons I love going to galleries with my mother is that she isn't 'arty'. She can view a piece or work, an entire exhibition, and confidently state "I don't get it." She then has the amazing resilience to move on. This doesn't stop her from ever going to another exhibition, or enjoying art, but she has a innate appreciation for something that I also love. 

A lot of my own recent art practice has been largely abstract and colourful, so some of the Olsen works in the exhibit were something that I thoroughly enjoyed. But I hesitated in front of others because despite being so central to the Australian landscape and a major Australian art figure, I didn't feel like they communicated with me. I'm not saying his work is easy, and I'm not saying that it's wrong. But I wanted more from them. I loved his watercolours and his recent studies of Lake Eyre. I could identify the imagery, the landscapes and his playful and loving attitude in expressing his artistic frogs. But I didn't like many of his larger scale, more major works in the first half of the exhibition.  The curatorial descriptions encouraged me to view his study of Sydney Harbour, but only if I tried really hard, could I find something in it that enabled me to picture Sydney.  
I feel like Olsen's work is an example of how people think art is easy. 
But it's not.

His large scale pieces incorporate layers of images that cannot be discerned immediately. They take contemplation. Punters might think that they could easily replicate, or even better this work, but they say that because they haven't tried. It's taken me time to upload this post, even now the exhibit has closed but it's only later that I have become more consciously aware of how this exhibition has impacted my practice. This is not the only factor, but the video element in the exhibit showed an interview with Olsen. Here he encouraged artists and would-be-artists, to forget what it was that they wanted to communicate or represent, and enjoy the process. Art is meant to make you happy. The smile on Olsen's face as he picked up a crayon and starting drawing mid-interview, is a reminder that art should be for enjoyment.

I don't need to 'get' Olsen's work. But I got his message. In the days and weeks since this exhibit I have found my self sketching and drawing more, without worrying what it is I'm drawing or what it even looks like. I've been exploring with colour differently and I feel more in tune with the reason behind art. All from an exhibit that I didn't initially like.