Poetry in Paint

It’s hard not to compare John Olsen’s paintings to poetry. His lines lyrically travel over the canvas, the varied colours bringing either subtle beauty or dramatic power. In The You Beaut Country at the NGV, you can see Olsen’s work and T.S Eliot’s words come together with a natural affinity.

Not only had I come to see Olsen’s works, but also to hear Ben Quilty’s talk. A great artist in his own right whose painting of Margaret Olley is one of my favourite Archibald winners.

Ben Quilty started the talk by mentioning the negative review by Robert Nelson. Quilty asks why anyone would write a bad review about art in Australia. As he says, ‘Why would anyone want to stop people going to a gallery?’

It’s true that art needs all the support it can get but we also need truthful critics.

During the Q&A, one person mentions that we should all write a review. This seems a lot closer to a solution. We are all so different, why give only certain people the power over the critique. Let’s share our thoughts. Let’s have a conversation.

I would like to share one sentence from the aforementioned review, John Olsen retrospective: mildly entertaining at best by Robert Nelson.

“His tumultuous panoramas spread out in convulsive swings and encounters, making us think of streets, places and ratbags, the nooks and monstrosities that surge and eddy with random impulse; but at the same time, this hubbub of a life teeming in its crannies is also pure painting, nothing but marks of painterly spontaneity that read as an abstract gestural language on a flat surface.”

A lovely description that loses me at the end. I don’t see anything wrong with art that is gestural mark making. Art is a way we can work through thoughts bigger than words, how we can communicate emotion, how we can try to make sense of the world or ourselves. Quilty tells us that a couple of weeks ago Olsen’s wife, Katherine, passed away. In this terrible time, Olsen has made more work in the last couple of weeks than he has for a while. Art is there to express the best and help us through the worst of moments. Does it need to be anything else?

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