Animism and Abstraction: The deceptions in the work of John Olsen.

I recently enrolled in -- and have now, very reluctantly, enrolled out of a post grad in art curation ---because they don't do online study, and i cant study from the southern highlands, and work, and be a mum and have an art practice.....

This is the first paper and only paper I wrote for the course. A short piece for a theoretical exhibition on animism and abstraction in Australian art. 

Goyder channel

Painting:  Goyder Channel
Artist: John Olsen
Painted: 1975


Whether sparse and subtle like the painting Goyder Channel[1], or abundant with colour and energy, as in the painting Entrance to the seaport of desire[2], John Olsen renders the Australian landscape in a way that breaks down the form and texture of place into seductive, animistic line work.  His line work is sometimes languid, sometimes energetic, all the time seeking to evoke a quality which he describes is more about the ‘feeling’ of the landscape than about pure abstraction[3].  

Olsen’s abstractions of the landscape are deceptive.  At first glance, paintings appear as tilted aerial landscapes, but as you move closer, elements appear in profile, in the landscape view.  Goyder Channel for example, is abstracted in a way that it is simultaneously a landscape and an aerial view. Frenetic scratchy line work evokes figures, before merging with blurred, softened lines and a vast, open aerial landscape.

Where Artist Fred Williams achieves this quality with weighty dabbed marks and lines often representing a melancholic, dying landscape, Olsen’s works speak of an abundance of life, found even in the most remote landscapes.  Even in the calmness of Goyder Channel Olsen’s linework evokes a quiet chaos of activity, of creatures or rivulets at the channels edge.  Exploring Lake Eyre and the surrounding channel country deepened Olsen’s understanding of the Australian landscape.  He was fascinated with the contrast between Lake Eyre teeming with life after the rains, and then a few weeks later, dry again, all the life suddenly in hibernation, or dead.

There are other deceptions in Olsen’s work, in all the odd little lines, dots and squiggles.  Are they figures, animal eyes, or body parts posing as tree limbs or rock pools? Or are they rock pools and rivulets posing as tree limbs and animal eyes?  Olsen’s linework has the singular quality of depicting the animate and inanimate simultaneously. Olsen alludes to this whilst discussing works with Amanda Houten.

"The landscape is an active force, a kind of an animal in itself. So that one," he points, "is like a dog raising up. The dog is in the landscape, but the landscape is also inside the dog. And the same applies to us. The landscape contains a spiritual essence that is part of me. I am in the landscape and the landscape is in me."[4]

These qualities are obvious in works such as ‘Five Bells’, with rich colour and complexity. However, this quality is equally evident in Goyder channel.  Here there are lines that look like bird claws, but could also be tracks or creeks. There are efficient, simple lines that could be figures, people running, or skulking through the landscape. Goyder Channel, while still very much full of life, is more evocative of the peace of the Lake Eyre landscape, softer and calmer than many of Olsen’s Sydney Harbour paintings, which are busy with energy.

In contrast to Australia’s colonial Artists, Olsen goes beyond simplistic animistic representations. Unlike Glover’s work ‘Natives on the Ouse River[5], where aboriginals climb trees as if part of the landscape, the animism in Olsen’s paintings is more complete. It is intrinsic to the painting, and not patronising of an age-old culture. There is an understanding of the interconnectedness of humans with nature.  If anything, Olsen’s work show kinship with contemporary aboriginal artwork, seeing rhythms and patterns in the landscape in a related way. There is no naïve tokenism in Olsen’s animist abstractions.  Olsen’s own language describes this best. He visually explores all the life that is connected, all the abundance in nature, from the smallest scale to the largest. “‘Nothing too small …should escape my attention’ he wrote, ‘an insects wing, the leap of a frog, the flight patterns of dragonflies’’.[6]


[1]  Olsen, John. 1975, Goyder Channel Watercolour on Paper, Australian Collection, Art Gallery of NSW, Accessed 10 April 2017,

[2] Olsen, John. 1964, Entrance to the seaport of desire, Synthetic Polymer paint on Canvas , Australian Collection, Art Gallery of NSW, Accessed 10 April 2017,

[3] Olsen, J. with Churcher, B. 2008, ‘An unstoppable force: Betty Churcher with John Olsen’, Video Recording, Artscape, Film Australia in association with ABC, National Film and Sound Archive

[4] Hooten, A. 2016, John Olsen: at home with the Australian artist, Good Weekend, Sydney Morning Herald, Accessed 10 April 2017,

[5] Glover, J. ca.1838. Natives on the Ouse River, Oil on Canvas, Australian Collection, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Accessed 10 April 2017,

[6] Edwards, D. 2016, The Littoral and the Void, in John Olsen: The you Beaut Country, Eds. Edwards, D. and Hurlston, D. Council of Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.p.32


So...the plan is to move to the southern highlands. Big skies and open landscapes are calling. They always do. And so, it's time to pack up the studio. And, for those of you who have been thinking about going art shopping - you are in luck because I'm putting everything on sale.

Use the code #BIGSKY for %30 off anything in the shop. 


I'll talk more about the why's and the wherefores....but right now I have packing to do.


Final Online exhibition painting - Chardikala to the power of 5

Chardikala (to the power of 5)

Chardikala (to the power of 5)

This is the last of the paintings that I had prepared for the group exhibition I was to be a part of over the last two weeks before things went a little pear shaped. Pear shaped happens a bit apparently.

There is still an exhibition going on at Platform72 with some lovely artists involved, so pop in to Atchison street in St.Leonards if you are around and show them some love. 

Meanwhile, the paintings that were to be exhibitedfeature on my instagram and blog over the past week, and if you are interested you can read through and learn their stories. Painting stories is something that has been on the edge of my painting periphery for some time, and crystalised for me as something I needed to do as a way of understanding my own connection to the global south, and places that have been impacted by Colonialism. So each of these paintings, of these stories, is somehow born of my experiences and connection. 

The Painting above is Chardikala (to the power of 5). 

Elephants have meaning in many cultures. For me, the strong associations are with Africa and India, places I have visited, or have friend and family connections to. I always think of the quiet power and strength of these animals, a kind of resilience in the face of humanity, and the wild.
I recently heard of a Sikh expression,  which is one about relentless optimism, even in the face of difficult times and adversity and somehow it resonated for me, like a mantra, a way to live our lives. It seemed only natural to use the elephant to tell the story, or explore the message of Chardikala.

This Chardikala painting is  of 5 elephants, relentlessly plodding with their large load of rocks, despite the weight.  In the midst of the chaos that this year is presenting globally, I feel like we must all be these elephants, we must all be endlessly optimistic, finding joy where we can.

I hope you have enjoyed my online exhibition of this series of paintings. I've certainly had fun, and it has inspired me to do this more often. Each painting will be made available in the Strongsoutherly shop (see link above).  The paintings are professionally stretched and either on Canvas or Linen. They are painted with Atelier Interactive and Golden paints, and are varnished with a matt varnish from Golden paints. Each painting is sold ready to hang with drings and wire, however once you get them home and have them up on the wall you may decide you want to take them to the framers, and of course that works too!

Meanwhile, stay tuned for more art and never know what's next.

On a Norfolk Hilltop

On a Norfolk Hilltop

On a Norfolk Hilltop

I've started a series of miniature paintings with a focus on Norfolk Island. They are a diversion while I take my time finishing the large canvases. This is the first, and there are a few others in progress. I'm having a crack at some Terns, Tropic Birds and a Bubuk Owl as well. It will be nice to see a little set of Norfolk paintings that are recognisably of this place, not abstracted concepts like my other ones. 

Meanwhile, I am still waiting for the Permaset paints to turn up so I can paint some fabric..... things take time to get here on the island.