Observations: An Interview with Bernard Ollis
Lena Owen | On 17, May 2017
Bernard Ollis is a prolific Australian artist with a career spanning decades. TCI has a chat with him about his latest exhibition at Mitchell Fine Art Gallery.
Drawn to the creative freedom and immediacy of oil pastels, Bernard uses this medium to create reinvented locations in his images. Previously the Director of the National Art School, Sydney, Bernard currently spends time in his studios in Sydney and Paris.
The Creative Issue: In what ways has your experience in art education enriched or detracted from your personal creative practice?
Bernard Ollis: Well, this has informed me as to who I am.. it is not a distraction from making art.. as long as you maintain your discipline and go to the studio to work even if you feel like resting, it is all about self discipline and priorities at the end of the day.
TCI: Your current exhibition again focuses on the streetscape. Do you know what draws you continually to the streetscape as opposed to other motifs?
BO: I tend to use the words urban landscape rather than streetscape. They are, in fact, a stage set where inhabitants, us, carry on our lives. The comedie humaine is another phrase that has been used to describe my art. The houses, dwellings, buildings, gardens, pathways are the stage that we inhabit, and its richly rewarding to observe.
TCI: Despite the bright colours, can you imagine any sinister qualities to any of your works? Pont Neuf Winter Sun seems to me to have an eery presence.
BO: Colour is important. I use it as an expressionist might, to intensify the subject matter. Yes I agree with you, I have often used threatening clouds or long shadows. I am not saying everything is joyous because even amongst a painting of a bowl of flowers, it is only positive in the fleeting moment between life and death.
TCI: Your works invite the audience to create a story as they view the piece. Do you find yourself creating backstories to your paintings as well? If so, could you share an example from a work in your current exhibition?
BO: I have stated before that my work is like writing half a sentence and allowing the viewer to complete it themselves. I do not want to be too prescriptive but set up a scenario in which you feel duty bound to participate. In the images in Morocco I am like a child in a lolly shop looking around me for the first time at all the wonderful Islamic patterns and tiles.
TCI: As you paint imagined scenes and can change the elements of a painting many times, how do you know when a work is complete?
BO: When is a work finished?? I once said in an ABC interview that a work is never completed just abandoned. The real truth is that you work on an image for days, weeks, months? and then as you analyse it on the wall for many days or weeks, you think to yourself that there is nothing else that you can give the work… it is at this point that your relationship with it as an active participant has ended… the affair is over… it is finished.. so if you like it, you sign it and frame it and it appears on an art gallery wall.
TCI: Your works in this exhibition pull the viewer into a reality with altered perspective. Are you challenging the viewer to question their reality or offering an escape?
BO: I am not interested in making a photographic reproduction of a place or environment. I am also not interested in cliches e.g. the Eiffel tower or Champs Elysees. I am interested in time and how we move through space, so I often place imagery which is beyond our peripheral view but it takes into account looking at it from several angles over several minutes or second visits etc. That is why the perspective sometimes feels warped or incongruous. To me it makes you engage more intently.
TCI: Would you recommend all emerging Australian artists spend some time in Paris or is it merely a particular haunt of yours?
BO: I would definitely recommend all Australian artists should periodically travel to distant places. Get out of your comfort zone. I think that Europe is a damn good start, since it is the cradle of humanity, and we all need to saturate ourselves in the diversity that is is a European perspective. Paris is right up there as a place to spend time, not just a week but ideally 3 months if you can last that long financially. That is what the whole art world did a hundred years ago, they all descended on Paris and created new and exciting breakthroughs in writing, composing, the visual arts, film making etc. etc. That is what I love about Paris – it is the palpable history around every street corner.
TCI: Many of your works include bright colours. You have mentioned previously on Inside the Artist’s Studio that your colour palette became brighter after your move to Australia. Do you see a similar brightness pervading the work of the Australian art scene in general?
BO: Well the scene is as diverse as the people who inhabit the city and try to make art. The only observation I would make about visual art in Brisbane is that it is affected by the physical environment you find yourself in. Even if you are not a landscape artist, the colours of Brisbane are intense. The light is bright and contrasts are intense. The rains come down in buckets, the greens are greener than anywhere else.So even if you are an I.T. techno artist, an abstract painter or whatever, you will be influenced by that which is around you. That is why I see Brisbane with fresh eyes because I only see this environment periodically.
What: Observations exhibition by Bernard Ollis
When: Wednesday 10 May until Saturday 3 June
Where: Mitchell Fine Art Gallery, 86 Arthur St, Fortitude Valley QLD
More Info: Event page online
Image Credit: ‘Queenslander Houses Brisbane Panorama,’ ‘ANZAC Square Brisbane,’ and ‘Rue Du Chevalier De La Barre Montmartre’ by Bernard Ollis, courtesy of Mitchell Fine Art Gallery