John Olsen - Lake Eyre

He’s one of Australia’s best known and most loved artists. ATL celebrates grand master John Olsen & his mesmerising body of work inspired by Lake Eyre.


Lake Eyre is certainly of the moment. Equally as certainly, everyone wishes the news were different. Last week an ABC helicopter went down near Lake Eyre. There were no survivors. The tributes to journalist Paul Lockyer, cameraman John Bean and pilot Gary Ticehurst have been incredibly moving. They were all good men and talented individuals and they made a wonderful team, helping out beyond the call of duty during the disastrous Queensland floods this year. On this assignment, the team were bringing back tales and images of a rare event: Lake Eyre, that vast saltpan in arid inland Australia, so often a stark dry lake, full for the second year in a row. Artist John Olsen has painted the lake many times: its extreme isolation and emptiness, as well as its spectacular changeable nature were a fertile inspiration. He was meant to be with them, returning to see the sublime sight of hundreds of thousands of banded stilts and pelicans flocking to breed in the middle of the desert. Instead, he had to undergo heart surgery (and is now in recovery). He’s twice saved by that operation.

It’s poignant to view this exhibition in the light of recent events. For Olsen, the lake has never been just a wondrous natural landscape; it also functions as a symbol. In his artist’s statement he calls it “an unconscious plughole of Australia.” For the artist, the lake is also a mental landscape: the void.


The exhibition is quite beautiful in its simplicity. It consists of 12 large works on French cotton paper, each 160x120cm, each floated in a minimal Perspex box frame. They are vintage John Olsen – the masterful use of watercolour (the medium particularly suits the subject), the scribbles and squiggles in pastel, the daubs of gesso, the lightness and assuredness of touch, earthy natural colours and the washes of blues and pinks and greens. They are lovely to look at. They teeter on the edge of being decorative without falling in. Something powerful underpins these paintings, something like respect. The artist hovers over his subject, looking down at it from the air, that vast shallow lake with its rippled dunes and inlets and grooves of salt, its patterns and colours and textures and moods changing with the light.


- Susie Burge, all rights reserved. Photo images courtesy of the artist and Tim Olsen Gallery.

John Olsen, Lake Eyre – The Desert Sea: Ruminations on an Empty Landscape is on show at Tim Olsen Gallery, Sydney till August 28.

Note: Olsen and Lockyer were friends. Lockyer opened the exhibition.
See John Olsen’s statement on the ABC
We are sorry for his loss.