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Publications

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Teeming with Life

John Olsen: His Complete Graphics 1957 – 2005

Author Ken McGregor in consultation with John Olsen and Jeffrey Makin

Publisher MacMillan Art Publishing A division of Palgrave MacMillan

Price AUD$ 120.00      

Published in 2005

By Reviewer Ashley Crawford, July 24, 2005

To say that it is John Olsen's year is beyond dispute. He walked
away comfortably with this year's Archibald Prize with barely a
hint of the usual animosity and controversy, with most commentators
agreeing that regardless of the old man's prestige, it was a
winning work all the way. That was closely followed by a
brilliantly curated survey exhibition at the Tarrawarra Museum of
Modern Art, still on show and well worth the journey to
Healesville.

Now Macmillan has released the most exhaustive book imaginable
on Olsen's extraordinary outpouring of graphic work.

Olsen is, of course, renowned for his border-line and sometimes
downright decorative works of bloody frogs. You see them in poster
shops Australia-wide, goggle-eyed amphibians in cutesy poses; the
mass version of limited-edition prints.

But as Teeming With Life: John Olsen. His Complete Graphics
1957-2005
makes clear, as in the history of evolution, the
amphibian has been only one stage of a far broader development.
Olsen's love affair with the hand-printed image has been an ongoing
obsession. Looking through this array of work it is a logical
one.

Olsen has always loved the line, its various permutations and
individualistic eccentricities, the way the hand of the artist can
create its own poetry.

As Ken McGregor notes early in his incisive text for this book:
"Olsen's line had started as a walk that was soon to become a run,
and by 1960 it became a ball-tearing, testosterone-packed
gallop."

For those fairly new to the breadth of Olsen's working practice,
the first images in Teeming with Life may well come as a
shock. They are somewhat harsh affairs compared with the lyricism
of his later work, clearly influenced by the Surrealism of Joan
Miro and Andre Masson with peppery hints of Giacometti.

On his first trip to Europe Olsen became closely aligned with
the renowned print workshop Atelier 17 in Montparnasse, which had
been founded in 1927 and had attracted many of the key artists of
the time including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Robert
Motherwell. The influence of this period is beyond dispute, leading
to an approach to both drawing and printmaking unlike his
contemporaries in Australia.

Olsen's line-work is established early in his career and it is
intriguing to see his 1957 etching of Paris in the context of later
works created in Australia's Lake Eyre where the organic swirls and
strange voids remain remarkably consistent.

As this book makes clear, he has remained at heart a total
romantic. His time spent in Deya, an island off the coast of
Majorca, results in a body of work celebrating food, wine and
Mediterranean culture as a whole, themes that, in various
permutations, remain consistent over almost 50 years of work.

The resulting book, embracing as it does the entirety of Olsen's
graphic work, unfortunately leads to a great deal of repetition in
subject and style.

There are marvellous surprises hidden among the mass of work,
notably his crazed and aggressive rendering of New York City from
1999 and the wonderfully harsh and torturous self-portrait
Bondi (2003) that depicts the artist on crutches after
massive knee surgery, a crotchety, scowling figure against the
joyous beach frivolity.

Unfortunately there is also a total morass of Olsen's favourite
themes. There are more frogs than a biblical plague, enough birds,
especially herons, to give Alfred Hitchcock a run for his money,
although, alas, without the suspense. Hares, owls, giraffes, a
veritable animal kingdom, and Olsen's Ark, make up the bulk of his
oeuvre and the early sense of avant garde daring fades rapidly.

But where Olsen loses his edge in terms of abstraction, he picks
up a homely love for nature and the purely organic that is rare in
contemporary art and it becomes rapidly clear why Olsen, despite
his occasionally harsher works, has become such a popular
artist.

McGregor as a writer is far from a stylist, but it is clear that
he has delved into his research with passion. Simply tracking down
and recording this mountain of work must have been a Herculean
task. He has worked closely with the director of Port Jackson
Press, Jeffrey Makin, to round out the technical details of Olsen's
work, making the book a rare and serious introduction into the
complex world of printmaking.

The introduction of the book is peppered with marvellous
documentary photographs and stories of Olsen at work with key
figures in the art and printmaking world including Tate Adams,
George Baldessin, Neil Leveson and Fred Genis.

The book is a superlative introduction to the graphic
sensibility of one of Australia's most consistent artists.

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