Valerie Marshall Strong Olsen had talent to burn, as shown in long-awaited solo exhibition at the National Art School
It would be wrong to say that Valerie Marshall Strong Olsen has waited a long time for her retrospective. Any suggestion of waiting disappeared with the artist’s death 10 years ago. What makes this exhibition at the Rayner Hoff Project Space at the National Art School so special is that it is also Olsen’s very first solo exhibition. Today, when artists exhibit works and publish catalogs before graduating from art school, it’s an almost unimaginable career profile.
Could it really be called a career? Olsen’s story contrasts dramatically with that of her ex-husband, John Olsen, whose work can be seen in the main NAS gallery, in the survey, Goya’s dog (until November 27). John, still vigorous at the age of 93, is this country’s best-known living artist. Bold and self-centered, he has had countless exhibitions and has been included in all of the major Australian collections. ValÃ©rie (1933-2011) was almost invisible, but just as devoted.
The difference is that John has lived his life in public and lapped up the applause, while Valerie seems to have approached art as an essentially private passion. She was notoriously unwilling to part with her works and withdrew almost voluntarily. Almost everything in this exhibit, put on by her children, Louise and Tim Olsen, is still in the hands of the family.
In this #Metoo moment, it would be easy to see Valerie as one of those stereotypical oppressed wives who have sacrificed their own ambitions for those of their husbands, homes and families. There is an element of truth to this because John cast an almighty shadow and displayed the full set of masculine traits that we now love to hate, but that’s not the whole story. If ValÃ©rie had wanted a career as an exhibiting artist, she could have had one. His job was good enough and if John was a hindrance – practical or psychological – that problem was eliminated when he left in the early 1980s.
The decision not to show has its pros and cons for any artist. No pressure on deadlines or business imperatives allows great freedom, but compromise means missing out on the invaluable stimulus of seeing your work on a gallery wall, where flaws and weaknesses immediately become apparent.
The title ârare sensitivityâ comes from a remark by British artist Alan Davie, who visited the Olsens in Australia and admired one of Valerie’s paintings. There is an undeniable sensitivity here but also a frustrating lack of development. Valerie was talented to burn, but she acted like a longtime student, constantly sampling and experimenting. I have lost count of the number of other artists whose influence can be seen in these images – from MirÃ³ to the CoBrA school; from John Passmore and Godfrey Miller to Surrealists, French Tachists and American Abstract Expressionists. She cited Arshile Gorky as a particular source of inspiration.
Small paintings from all eras show Olsen’s quality as a painter. It’s sad that she never wanted to put herself in the limelight.
John McDonald on Valerie Marshall Strong Olsen
Everything Olsen attempted was skillfully executed and embraced on a deep level. She is not satisfied with superficial resemblances but enters fully into the spirit of each adventure. It’s originality that’s missing – not because it’s something that is innate to everyone, but because she never seemed to persevere in a painting style long enough to reach that plateau.
John Olsen was no less derivative, no less evident in his influences, but ambition and determination took him to another level. His greatest works transcend comparisons with his peers.
With ValÃ©rie, the avant-garde aspirations of paintings like Brushwood and Yarramalong afternoon (both in 1963), are rarely equaled in later works. In these images, still apparently landscapes, she skillfully captures the wave of abstraction sweeping the planet. In Encuentro EspaÃ±ol (c.1966), Olsen shows that she could equal him with her husband by reflecting the enthusiasm they found in Spanish painting.
Later work such as Red gums, Angophora Valley (1980) and Summer pond (c. 1985) show that Olsen is ready to continue working on a large scale, but she has become much less assertive. These paintings are impressionist studies that respond sensitively to the landscape, putting clusters of small brushstrokes against intricately painted fields of color. There is a âglobalâ feel to these internalized paintings, which capture a mood rather than a specific scene. She is more interested in tone than composition.
There are small images from all eras – mostly landscapes and still lifes – that show Olsen’s quality as a painter. It’s a little sad that she never wanted to put herself in the limelight. Fortune in the visual arts tends to favor the aggressive, self-confident types, but for Olsen that would have gone completely against the grain. Then again, it may be unfair to expect all artists to shout, âLook at me! We are perhaps more appreciative of those who can temper their creative obsessions with overtly human qualities.
William Kentridge, exhibited at the Galeries Annandale, is an artist who confuses all the artistic attitudes of which I have spoken. It is a mark of Kentridge’s priorities that he still lives in Johannesburg while his international success would allow him to settle anywhere in the world. He is sincerely self-effacing but had boundless ambition for his work. The key ingredient may be his interest in so many different fields: drawing, printmaking, animation, sculpture, puppetry, video, opera, and other forms of large-scale performance. He approaches these disciplines with an impressive knowledge of art, history, literature and politics. He is willing to take risks and form unusual relationships.
He is sincerely self-effacing but had boundless ambition for his work. The key ingredient can be his interest in so many areas.
John McDonald on William Kentridge
Kentridge’s multi-level cerebral approach may not be to everyone’s liking, but his accomplishments command universal respect. William Kentridge: Tapestries presents a series of large-scale pieces created with Marguerite Stephens, with whom the artist has worked since 2001. The tapestries in this exhibition, which line the walls of the upstairs gallery, form a compact overview of her recent efforts in this exhibition. medium. The first copies date from 2009, and there are two brand new pieces: Colleoni and Mechanic.
The tapestries incorporate ideas and motifs from a range of earlier projects, including Kentridge’s production of Shostakovich’s opera, The nose, and the processional figures that appeared in sculptures, performances and graphic works.
In most cases, the images appear to be pasted onto old cards, although the relationships are not straightforward. In Colleoni, a slender black silhouette of a horse and rider is superimposed on a map of a Chinese province. The title refers to the famous equestrian statue of Andrea del Verrocchio by Bartolomeo Colleoni at Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice.
The statue of Verrocchio is the embodiment of the ‘noble horseman’ and a landmark in the history of sculpture, but Kentridge turned Colleoni into a tin soldier – a Don Quixote in an era when there was nothing from noble to war. When death is dispensed by missiles and drones, a warrior on horseback is a laughable anachronism.
The map of China takes us back to a time when European powers could impose their will on the Asian masses, but the geopolitics of the present has made this worldview as archaic as horse and rider. Looking back with shame or nostalgia to those days of creeping imperialism is a futile exercise.
In the past, a tapestry was a luxury item that could be draped over the stone walls of a castle or over the marble and stucco of a palace. The Kentridge tapestries are the antithesis of this idea, being questions about power rather than celebrations. Today it seems that all of our public celebrations are tied to athletic competitions as politics has become an arena of relentless anxiety and scandal.
Valerie Marshall Strong Olsen: a rare sensitivity, Rayner Hoff Project Space, National Art School, until November 27; William Kentridge: Tapestries, Galeries Annandale, until December 11.
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