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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
(ISBN 1 876832 93 2)
Published in 2005

Price A$ 120
All prices are exclusive of P&H

  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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