Bernard Ollis

Bernard Ollis spent 2020 painting at home, while he recovered from knee surgery. The works he painted are, at once, exercises in documentation and imagination, rendering the studios, gardens, and creative spaces of artists both here in Australia, and in Europe. The works, taken together, tell an art historical story from Ollis's first person perspective, mapping out the work that the artists he admires have done to reconfigure the ground beneath their feet, and the plane beneath their brushes.

Ollis creates – rather than replicates – visions of the working spaces of a number of significant Australian and European artists in these new works. We have the studios of Elisabeth Cummings and Guy Warren, and Ollis’ own Erskineville backyard complete with what would seem to be a Matisse mural. Further afield, we are drawn through the portal of this mural to Matisse’s home, and to Rodin’s garden, Barbara Hepworth’s, and Cezanne’s.

This leap from the reference to Matisse’s work, situated here in Sydney, to the grounds on which Matisse worked himself, usefully models the way that Ollis’s engagement with art history works. On one level, he is interested in referring to it indexically: painting other people’s paintings, sculptures, art materials, and even empty canvases. And, yet, the work is more knowing in its scheme of reference than to simply reproduce works of art or scenes of art making. The ‘portal’ that we go through, when looking back at these scenes, is one of form; Ollis, that is, takes on the formal ideas of many of the artists whose spaces he looks at, in a kind of meta-reference that delights in its playfulness.

Perhaps the moment in which we can most clearly see this strategy of layered referencing comes in Ollis’s depiction of Hockey’s pool. Visitors to the exhibition might encounter any number of paintings before finding this one, and will surely notice throughout the way that Ollis experiments with multiple points of perspective, densely coloured pattern, and lively rendering of household objects in a way which cannot but recall Hockney’s interiors. So, to discover, after all this formal engagement with the archive of art history, a literal depiction of Hockney’s famous pool – which was itself, for Hockney, both subject matter and ambient creative environment – shows Ollis in a kind of knowing wink.

The studio, garden, the house, and even the bar – these are all, in Ollis’ vision, crucibles for the work that the art does, which is (amongst other things) to reform the world around itself. Take, for example, his picture of Barbara Hepworth’s garden, with her taut, insistent curved sculptures sat amongst it. Here, the way that artmaking redraws the ground beneath it (in this instance, literal ground, but also conceptual ground) is made plain: trees make way for Hepworth’s sculptures, curving themselves around them; the ground shifts and slides to accomodate the sculpture like liquid mantle; the roof of a building slopes – perhaps, bows – down towards the central sculptural figure.

Ollis, even when confined at home, finds that artmaking can reconfigure a place: bring it closer, make it stranger, unsettle it and hold it tightly.

EXHIBITION
The Artist’s Garden
12 May – 12 June 2021
Mitchell Fine Art, Brisbane

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