Valerie Marshall Strong Olsen had a talent for burning, as shown in a long-awaited solo show at the National Art School.

It would be wrong to say that Valerie Marshall Strong Olsen has been waiting a long time for her retrospective. Any suggestion of waiting disappeared with the artist’s death 10 years ago. What makes this show at the Rayner Hoff Project Space of the National Art School so special is that it is also Olsen’s very first solo exhibition. Today, when artists show work and publish catalogs before they graduate from art school, it’s an almost unimaginable career profile.

Could it actually be called a career? Olsen’s story stands in dramatic contrast to that of her ex-husband, John Olsen, whose work can be seen in the NAS’s main gallery, in the survey, Goya’s Dog (until November 27). John, still full of vigor at the age of 93, is the best known living artist of this country. Imposing and self-centered, he has had countless exhibitions and has been included in every major Australian collection. Valerie (1933-2011) was almost invisible, but equally dedicated.

Unsung Life: Early 1970s portrait by Valerie Marshall Strong Olsen.

Unsung Life: Early 1970s portrait by Valerie Marshall Strong Olsen.

The difference was that John lived his life in public and applauded the applause, while Valerie seems to have approached art as an essentially private passion. She was notoriously unwilling to part with works and almost willingly withdrew. Almost everything in this exhibition, composed by her children, Louise and Tim Olsen, is still in family hands.

In this #Metoo moment it would be easy to see Valerie as one of those stereotypically repressed wives who sacrificed their own ambitions to those of husband, home and family. There is an element of truth in this because John cast an omnipotent shadow and showed the full set of masculine traits we now love to hate, but it’s not the whole story. If Valerie wanted to have a career as an exhibiting artist she could have one. Her work was pretty good and if John was a hindrance – practical or psychological – that problem was removed when he left in the early 1980s.

Cleverly capturing the wave of abstraction that swept the planet: Olsen's Afternoon Yarramalong (1963).

Cleverly capturing the wave of abstraction that swept the planet: Olsen’s Afternoon Yarramalong (1963).

The decision not to show has its advantages and disadvantages for any artist. No pressure on a deadline or a business imperative allows for much freedom, but compromise means missing out on the invaluable incentive to see your work on a gallery wall where flaws and weaknesses are immediately evident.

The title “rare sensitivity” 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 undoubted sensitivity here but also a frustrating lack of development. Valerie had a talent for burning but she served as a lifelong student, constantly trying and experimenting. I lost count of the number of other artists whose influence can be seen in these images – from Miró to the CoBrA school; from John Passmore and Godfrey Miller to the Surrealists, the French Tachists and the American Abstract Expressionists. She cited Arshile Gorky as a special inspiration.

Small pictures from each period show Olsen’s quality as a painter. It’s unfortunate that she never had the urge to push herself into the spotlight.

John McDonald on Valerie Marshall Strong Olsen

Everything Olsen tried was cleverly implemented and embraced on a deep level. She was not content with superficial similarities but immersed herself fully in the spirit of every enterprise. It’s the originality that disappears – not because that’s something innate to every person, but because she never seemed to persist with a style of painting long enough to reach this plateau.

Like her husband, she found excitement in a Spanish painting: Encuentro Español, (c.1966).

Like her husband, she found excitement in a Spanish painting: Encuentro Español, (c.1966).

John Olsen was no less derived, no less evident in his influences, but ambition and determination drove him to break through to another level. His finest works transcend comparisons with his peers.

With Valerie, the avant-garde aspirations of paintings such as Undergrowth and Afternoon Yarramalong (both 1963), are rarely matched in the later works. In these images, still seemingly landscapes, she skillfully captures the wave of abstraction that swept the planet. In Spanish Encounter (c.1966), Olsen shows that she was able to match it with her husband in reflecting the excitement they found in Spanish painting.

Valerie Marshall Strong Oxen, Banksias (1989).

Valerie Marshall Strong Oxen, Banksias (1989).

Later works such as Red Gums, Angophora Valley (1980) and Summer Pond (c.1985) shows Olsen ready to continue working on a large scale, but she grew much less confident. These paintings are impressionistic studies that respond sensitively to the landscape, placing clusters of small brushstrokes against thinly painted fields of color. There is a “general” feeling in these boarding paintings that captures a mood rather than any specific scene. She is more interested in tone than in composition.

Capturing humor rather than any specific scene: Valerie Marshall Strong Olsen, Red Gum, 1969.

Capturing humor rather than any specific scene: Valerie Marshall Strong Olsen, Red Gum, 1969.

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There are small images from each period – mainly landscapes and still lifes – that show Olsen’s quality as a painter. It’s a little sad that she never had the urge to push herself into focus. Fortune in the visual arts tends to favor the aggressive, self-confident types, but for Olsen that would have gone completely against the grain. Again, it may be unfair to expect all artists to shout, “Look at me!” We could be more grateful to those who can moderate their creative obsessions with demonstrably human qualities.

William Kentridge, exhibiting at Annandale Galleries, is an artist who confuses all the artistic attitudes I have discussed. It is a sign of Kentridge’s priorities that he continues to live in Johannesburg as his international success would allow him to relocate to anywhere in the world. He is really modest but possesses unlimited ambition for his work. The key ingredient may be his interest in so many different areas: drawing, printmaking, animation, sculpture, puppetry, video, opera and other forms of large-scale performance. He comes to these disciplines with an impressive knowledge of art, history, literature and politics. He is willing to take risks and make unusual relationships.

He is really modest but possesses unlimited ambition for his work. The key ingredient may be his interest in so many areas.

John McDonald on William Kentridge

Kentridge’s cerebral, multi-layered approach may not appeal to everyone, but his achievements require universal respect. William Kentridge: Carpets presents a series of large-scale pieces co-produced with Marguerite Stephens, with whom the artist has been working since 2001. The tapestries in this show, which line the walls of the upstairs gallery, form a compact survey of his recent efforts in this environment. . The earliest examples date from 2009, and there are two brand new pieces: Colleoni and Mechanic.

Johannesburg-based William Kentridge in 2015.

Johannesburg-based William Kentridge in 2015.

The tapestries incorporate ideas and themes from a range of previous projects, including Kentridge’s production of Shostakovich’s opera, The Nose, and the processional figures that appeared in sculptures, presentations and graphic work.

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In most cases, images appear to be pasted over ancient maps, although the relationships are not straightforward. In Colleoni, a thin black silhouette of a horse and rider are superimposed on a map of a Chinese province. The title refers to the famous horse statue of Andrea del Verrocchio by Bartolomeo Colleoni in Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice.

The statue of Verrocchio is the epitome of “the noble rider” and a landmark in the history of sculpture, but Kentridge transformed Colleoni into a toy soldier – Quixote for an age when there is nothing noble about warfare. When death is delivered by missiles and drones, a warrior on horseback is a ridiculous anachronism.

Colleoni by William Kentridge

Colleoni by William KentridgeCredit:Annandale Galleries

The map of China takes us back to a time when the European powers could impose their will on the masses of Asia, but the geopolitics of today has made that worldview as ancient as the horse and rider. Looking back with shame or nostalgia at those days of unbridled imperialism is an exercise in vanity.

In the past, a tapestry was a luxurious object that could be draped over the stone walls of a castle or the marble and stucco of a palace. Kentridge’s tapestries are the antithesis of this idea, being interrogations of power rather than celebrations. Today it seems like all of our public holidays are tied to sports competitions while politics has become an arena of relentless anxiety and scandal.

Valerie Marshall Strong Olsen: Rare Nonsense, Rayner Hoff Project Space, National Art School, until November 27; William Kentridge: Carpets, Annandale Galleries, until December 11th.

www.johnmcdonald.net.au

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