Open to interpretation

By Christine Clark, February 2012

The art of Lance Olsen contains both a wild complexity and a profound serenity.

It’s a surprise. The space is small. Much smaller than expected and very unlike any studio I’ve ever visited before. It’s oblique. His materials are there, but it’s so sparse. There are no posters or trinkets or oddities on display to illustrate his worldly experiences. Other than a block of paintings stacked in a dark corner, there are no finished works in plain view either. This is a work space and not at all romantic. It looks more like a storage room, filled with random objects. Everything seems grey or some variation thereof. It’s entirely utilitarian, like the office of a mid-level manager in a warehouse somewhere.

Although we spend more than two hours in this warm, high-ceilinged little space, Lance Austin Olsen begins our conversation by expressing a certain reluctance about the idea of discussing his art. He says, “You don’t expect architects to tap-dance to explain their buildings. We don’t really know [what art means], it’s like the footprints through your life—like walking—what does it all mean?”

To the left, just as you enter the studio, is his painting wall. On it are pinned three sheets of Arches 88 paper; paintings in progress, each marked by a series of wide black brush strokes, but as of yet the sheets are predominantly white. Behind the paper, the wall is a painting in itself, stained with running lines of thin black and purple paint, evidence of past action. On the ground 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 brushes from paint stores; they stand on their bristles in tubs of water. They are cheap, and when they’re all used up, he throws them out. 

When he built this studio and the house in which he lives, he threw 400 paintings into the dumpster. He explains, “The nice thing about paper is that it’s paper—canvas is a storage problem.” 

At 69 years old, he’s made a lot of paintings. He was born in 1943 in South London, and began studying at the Camberwell School of Arts at the age of 15. His teachers were all working artists; he studied under men like Frank Auerbach, Howard Hodgkin and R.B. Kitaj. He says, “That’s when drawing was considered important. Drawing to me was a wonderful discipline. We’d be doing life drawing, trying to put down what we see—really sort of looking [and] even if the drawing wasn’t that great, it’s still going in your head.”

His notebooks, though, he never throws out. He shows me an 80-page notebook, the raw material for a graphic score, a musical composition made up of rather subjective symbols. In this case, many of the drawings are looping, scribbling, doodle-like marks, filling each page. He says that graphic scores are “sometimes baffling, with no explanation. The performer is a part of the composition process—every time, it’s performed differently. [Graphic scores] are open to interpretation—that’s what makes them difficult,” but the composer might give clues as to how to make sounds based on the symbols. For instance, “the deepest black is the deepest silence.”

About 12 years ago, Olsen began an important collaborative partnership with artist Jamie Drouin. They make sound together in a genre called EAI, or electroacoustic improv. Silence has developed as a vital element in their work. Mr Olsen tells a story about a performance in Olympia, Washington about eight years ago. Other performers had instruments; they were loud and the audience responded in kind, talking throughout. In contrast, Olsen and Drouin had a computer and 12 copper etching plates. They hooked the plates up to the computer and broadcast the sound of Olsen scratching into the plates. Olsen, who is shy and was nervous, was surprised at the end of the performance, when he finally looked up, to see 150 people listening rapt and silent. 

Their latest recording, “Absence and Forgiveness,” is renowned internationally, appearing repeatedly on the top 10 lists of critics everywhere, from the US to Romania. Olsen has recently been invited to participate in the Seattle Improvised Music Festival, February 8-13.

The instruments for his sound work 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. This object makes several delicate and unusual noises. 

He says that he and Drouin are moving toward an even more minimal sound. During recording, they allow “a lot of empty space. You think you’ve been sitting there for hours and it’s been eight seconds.” Such is the effect of silence and stillness, even on the senses of the artist.

This minimalism is a part of a larger cycle. He explains that “my paintings used to be simple—one line (a single line inside a white space. The line is so beautiful and the space is so beautiful holding that line), but I felt that something was wrong. It was too easy. It’s like a wave. It starts simple, but then it gets very full and black. I fill things in and then take them away again—and then they go back in again, but in a different way.”

During his long career as a visual artist, Olsen has represented Canada in a number of biennials with his large-scale painting and drawings. His work frequently appears in both solo and group shows in Polychrome Fine Arts, here in Victoria. 

His latest paintings are remarkably rich. “Kalbari Carpetbaggers #2,” completed in 2011, is made up of 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 and little dots and lines and a photograph of a bed as well. His are the most confident, and dare I say, masterly paintings I believe I have ever seen in person. I won’t even begin to describe my feelings the first time I saw his series, The Road to Esperance, at Polychrome last spring. I felt love. They contain both a wild complexity and a profound serenity. They’re truly beautiful. 

Speaking about his present, all of it—the painting and the music—he tells me that, “This is the best work I’ve done in my whole life.” And I believe him.


See and hear Lance Austin Olsen’s work at: 

Christine Clark is a Victoria-based artist who writes about artists in Victoria and beyond. See her blog at