SUSAN McCulloch and Emily McCulloch Childs are the co-authors and publishers of McCulloch's Encyclopedia of Australian Art and McCulloch's Contemporary Aboriginal Art: the complete guide as well as art writers for leading press, specialist journals and online publications. Emily's articles, catalogue essays and exhibition reviews can be found at emilymcculloch.blog.spot. See below for Susan McCulloch's review of a John Olsen exhibition originally published in The Australian, April 2003.

Frogs, paellas and a fading sun
John Olsen at Metro 5, Armadale, Melbourne 
The Australian, Review, April 2003 
Susan McCulloch

`One of the differences between being a performing artist and a painter is that when you paint something no-one ever asks you to do it again,’ said singer and artist Joni Mitchell. `No-one said to Vincent van Gogh ‘`Hey man, paint us a starry night again.’’ `Once it’s painted, that’s that.’ Or is it? Increasingly we are asking our artists to repeat their successes.

The art world is becoming more and more of a theatrical event. This is obvious at auctions, where the auctioneer is conductor, the bidders the audience, the climax is the record breaking sales. The works of art appear almost as bit players.

Over-dramatisation is less common in the gallery sector – save for some exhibitions such as John Olsen’s latest at Melbourne’s Metro 5 `Move over Michelangelo! Australia’s greatest living artist – aged 75 – climbs ladder to paint ceiling’…,’ trumpets Metro 5’s PR release.  `Undoubtedly Australia’s greatest living artist and national treasure" will scale a "towering ladder" to put the finishing touches to a massive new ceiling installation - an equivalent of Rome’s Sistine Chapel,"

Oh please. I did not see Olsen make his heroic climb, but did see the "spontaneous" roof piece a week before, coyly wrapped in plastic, spanning Metro 5’s ceiling. The painter was obviously not painting the ceiling in situ, but would daub the walls alongside for the cameras. For once I thanked the early deadline for this column which necessitated missing this embarrassing event. And  Sistine-Chapel like? It is absurd to compare five relatively modestly sized panels by an Australian artist to one of the world’s heroic art miracles. Why would Olsen undertake such an exercise? Publicity it may bring;  but is this what someone of the stature of Olsen really wants or needs? 

Then there is the tag `Australia’s greatest living artist’  It’s a title artists seem to acquire by default – largely by having outlived their peers. In Olsen’s case these include Russell Drysdale, William Dobell, Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Brett Whiteley, Albert Tucker, Ian Fairweather, Lloyd Rees, Fred Williams, Emily Kngwarreye and Rover Thomas to name just a few. And what of those still painting, such as Jeffrey Smart, James Gleeson and William Robinson?  I think they are just as worthy of that title. 

But if your gallery's aim is to sell 14 paintings plus a 5 part ceiling work for a minimum of $180,000 each perhaps this sort of promotion is called for.

So what of the paintings themselves? Fourteen hardly equates to a huge output; nor does this show pretend towards any encyclopaedic or reflective view of Olsen’s oeuvre. Missing are any of his wonderfully spontaneous sketches or notations for the works which illuminate their making.

Most disappointing are the works themselves, most of which have the  hollow ring of repetition. `Does busyness equate with exuberance?’ I asked on first seeing his now trademark squiggly brushstrokes. Yet despite their obvious fluency of line, the substance of these paintings seems, if not entirely lifeless, then oddly flat and one dimensional. Gone is the wild exuberance and multi-layered tangled lines which gave his earlier works such depth and joie de vivre. These are carefully marked, meticulous almost in their planning.

I did want to like these pictures, knowing something of the ill health Olsen had worked against to pick up brush and regain his creative force. But all I kept seeing were variations on past glories. 

Seafood Paella of 2002 zooms in to a focal central `plate’ with the same mustardy yellow of his 1986 Goya’s Dog and Paella (but without the dog). Frog Dams 2003 is a variation of  Queensland House and Lily Pond 1995. And the aerial view – so stunningly portrayed in early works -  appears again in Salt Lake, 2003 but is an almost dead ringer in composition and tone for his 1975 Lake Eyre.

Repetition is one of the hazards of a long and productive artistic life. Boyd, whose innovation had been monumental until the late 1980s fell into its too-willing arms later, producing endless variations of Shoalhaven River views; and one of the saddest artistic sights I’ve seen was John Perceval repainting, years later, a crude approximation of one of his own earlier works from a print tacked alongside his easel.

Yet the eastern desert artist Kngwarreye, right up until weeks before she died, confounded dealers and her family by launching into wild new territories. In quieter fashion, so did Rees, who abandoned the formality of earlier works to go gently but powerfully into that good night, by transforming his paintings into luminous Turneresque abstractions.

There is a big difference also between repetition and expansion on a theme. Williams, Smart,  Brack, Fairweather, Thomas and Robinson could not be said to have radically changed their base concepts or even styles, but continually, offered different insights of their subject – be it the land, domesticity, or society.

With Olsen you only have to hark back to the energetic vistas of the early 1960s, You Beaut Country, series to realise that here was a unique vision. So too in his drawings and prints of later years. 

But Patrick McCaughey summed things up pretty well when he wrote of Olsen even as early as 1977 "It’s hard to keep on being spontaneous for ever". Unfortunately, 26 years later it's the sentiment that best sums up this show for me. Olsen has painted his own `starry nights’ and won his artistic guernseys many times over. Maybe he should leave it, with pride, at that.