The first time I visited Lance Olsen's studio it was a very cold January evening, only about 7 o'clock but black like hell, even the snow. This last time, I arrived in the merry month of May and, like a film edit, the same little path from house to studio dissolved from a bleak memory into warm spring, and to my surprised delight, everywhere in thick profusion were buttercups tall as Lance's curly haired little granddaughter buzzing along ahead of us. Although, over the course of two visits, we spend several hours together talking, Lance begins each conversation by expressing a definite reluctance about the idea of discussing his art. He says, "You don't expect architects to tap dance to explain their buildings. We really don't know [what art means]. It's like the footprints through your life...what does it all mean?"
Inside, the studio is small. Much smaller than expected and very unlike any I've visited before. His materials are there but it's sparse. There are no posters or trinkets or oddities on display to illustrate his worldly experiences, of which he's had a few. He grew up in boarding schools in England and in South Africa; he went to London's Camberwell School of Arts, studying under men like Frank Auerbach, Howard Hodgkin and R.B. Kitaj; he immigrated to Canada, settling in Victoria while in his early 30's and he still travels extensively. In this studio, experience is not confined to knick knacks and souvenirs, experience is converted into art-making.
Other than several of his early oil paintings and a thick stacks of paintings on paper, all of which is stored in a dark corner or two, there are only a handful of finished acrylics on display. This is a work space and not at all romantic. It looks more like a storage room, filled with random objects. Black binders fill the shelves above a freshly cleared work table. The instruments he uses for his sound work are there too and include, in part, two small tape recorders, pine cones, rocks, an old broken down guitar, and most interesting, an LP wrapped round and round with a bicycle tube with one copper and one plastic dish-scrubber tucked in under the tube, an object which can be manipulated to make several delicate and unusual noises. There are no windows but two sky lights in the angled ceiling. Everything, but the new paintings, seems grey or some variation thereof. It's entirely utilitarian, like the office of a mildly eccentric mid-level manager in a warehouse somewhere.
To the left, just as you enter the studio, is his painting wall. On it are secured several sheets of Arches 88 paper; paintings in various stages of progress. Leaning against the wall three of these paintings, neatly framed, are ready to be shipped to a gallery in Vancouver. The wall is a painting in itself, stained with running lines of thin black and purple paint, evidence of past action. Higher up are thick wedges of dull orange paint, strokes of a plaster knife moving in from beyond the edges of a bygone sheet of paper. On the grey carpet below are scattered paint tubes (acrylics only; they are arguably less hazardous and also less likely to migrate into his electronics equipment only four or five feet away). He buys his brushes from hardware stores, they stand on their bristles in tubs of water. They're cheap. At 70 years old, he has arthritis in his hands and so uses a fistful of brushes at a time, scooping the paint up and onto the paper, allowing the paint itself to complete the action.
When he built this studio and the house he lives in, he threw 400 paintings on canvas into a dumpster. It seems unthinkable, but he says, "The nice thing about paper is that it's paper--canvas is a storage problem". This ability to let go, to let the buttercups grow (and hardly anyone lets buttercups grow), to the let the paint run, to let the work take it's own form, is part of an interesting dynamic in his art that seems also to involve an unusually heightened sense of awareness in regards to experiential phenomenon generally considered uninteresting. He exploits hidden potential, using those qualities many of us take for granted as the building blocks to greatly mysterious and poetic works of art.
My first introduction to Lance's work was at an exhibition of his paintings called The Road to Esperance. The series was fairly typical of his current painting practice which is strikingly balanced between expressionism and minimalism, containing both wild complexity and profound serenity. From that first exposure I remember, vividly, layers of pale washes and the blackest velvet blacks and runs and splashes and great swaths of green and yellow and orange, with stuttering dry marks moving through everything. I felt that I was in the presence of a master, a rare experience, to be sure, and on further inspection discovered, unsurprisingly that his practice itself is remarkably diverse and rich, encompassing sound, experiments with scanners and cameras, projections, video and lithography as well as painting.
While recently perusing, online, a single edition book Lance published called American Paint Catalogue for a Non-Existent Exhibition (consisting of 124 pages of drawings on discarded catalogue covers) and listening to a free download of his 25 minute found sound piece called Thief (an arrangement of crunching feet, breathing, chains, silence) my cell phone starts to ring and at first I think it's a part of the piece. And later I think again, it was a part of the piece. There is that near seamless blend of art and life in Lance's work, an all encompassing production apparently free of the self-edit, but free also of any stridently defined boundaries. Rather the process of observing and then collecting and then arranging creates, or perhaps morphs into, an endless loop of observing, collecting and arranging and not for only the artist, but for all of us paying attention.
It's important to note that American Paint Catalogue for a Non-Existent Exhibition was conceived in response to the ongoing trend of publishing, and distributing far and wide, catalogues of exhibition images that only a minority of people are actually able to see in person. This raises fundamental (and kind of funny) questions about what is actually of importance: the art and the exhibition, or the need to make people worldwide understand that there was some art in an exhibition somewhere. The point here, of course, is that Olsen has re-created that dilemma quite elegantly while also presenting, rather elaborately, and to a limited audience (after all there is only one edition) an extensive collection of his powerful black lined, doodle-like drawings.
In the sound piece, Thief, there is, again, the mirroring of circumstance, although of a more personal nature. His studio was burgled and he lost his computer, hard drives and 10 years worth of digital recordings. Thief was created in the time immediately after the break-in when Lance was left to begin building his collection of sounds again, anew. Thief, I described earlier as found sound, but in a sense it is a collection of sounds not found but taken. He took to carrying a small tape recorder in his pocket or on his person, moving through the world, unbeknownst to those people or creatures or objects making recordable noise that he was in fact taking this thing from them, the sounds they make.
Seen in this light, Lance Olsen is suddenly much more than a simple conduit. There is calculation in his movements as well, an almost sly repurposing of several human characteristics of the kind mentioned above; the ambition of artists, the criminality of the thief, and the unguarded innocence of those from whom the thief takes. This seems perfectly in keeping with the expressionism and minimalism I first noticed in his paintings. In art, he is constantly working in response to what has happened, whether it's a mark he's made with paint or a careless act of thievery, and he uses a light, light touch. His responses are genuine but controlled, never going too far, always leaving just enough room for the observer to find space for themselves and their own thoughts.
Before we part, Lance remarks, rather off-handedly, that he's been practising meditation for the last forty years, sometimes joining week-long meditation retreats, which he says is harder than anything, an extreme challenge for both body and mind. He's a Buddhist, and immediately it's tempting to sum up his complex practice as a spiritual one, but it's almost too glib a conclusion because Olsen was an artist long before he took up meditating. Perhaps spirituality is simply another tool, like art, to be used as a way forward, in a tenacious response to the relentless onslaught that is life. About himself he says, very simply that "I have no idea what I'm going to do. I make a sound and it suggests something. I don't like being an art director in my own work. I like flowing...being one with what [I'm] doing."