Paris and other stories. By Bernard Ollis. Aarwun Gallery, Federation Square, Gold Creek, Nicholls. Until September 30.
The London-trained painter Bernard Ollis spent most of his life teaching at art schools in Australia but in 2006 he retired, at the age of 58, to turn to full-time studio practice. For the preceding decade, he had been the director of the National Art School in Sydney where, despite endless committees, struggles for institutional autonomy and the battle over budgets, he continued to paint in the few liberated hours. On retirement came the testing period, to see if there was still fire in the belly and the passion to move around masses of paint.
In terms of volume and activity, liberation from arts school administration resulted in a dramatic increase in activity. In the 20 years preceding his retirement he had 20 solo exhibitions, in the eight years since his retirement the number has jumped to 24 solo shows.
The exhibition at the Aarwun Gallery is quite large – 38 oil pastel drawings, eight etchings, five oil paintings, and four ceramic pieces. In terms of their subject matter they are largely set in Paris, with occasional excursions to Nice, Florence, New York, Cairo, Sydney and Hill End.
Ollis is an outstanding colourist and a strong draughtsman, who like a voyeur seems to love to observe an urban scene and then spin a yarn about it. The narrative need not be anchored in reality or observation, but grows out of the organic development of a design. Like the great Russian painter of urban life, Marc Chagall, Ollis' compositions radiate with a hedonistic joy and create the mood of a nostalgic dream. Everything is brighter, richer and more festive than is possible in reality.
Walking into this exhibition, you seem to be bathed in a joyous polychrome aura, where the bridges and church towers sway rhythmically as happy throngs of people cross a cobalt blue River Seine over a pink and orange bridge. The buildings possess an inner luminosity as well as being lit from the outside. In the night sky, purple clouds float by and seem to flirt with the illuminated street lamps that shine like lit sparklers. It is a holiday, escapist atmosphere far from the hassles of the world of economic realities, climate change and raging political maniacs.
Ollis devises his small mythologies of the everyday, where there is the desire to convert a shopfront, a tree in spring growth or a beach house in a holiday resort, into something touched with magic. He adopts a very high chromatic key with complementary colour contrasts, expressive linear compositions and a quirky disregard for perspectival structures. While it may be an idiosyncratic style, it is built on the art of the great French colourists and expressionists who stormed Europe in the opening decades of the 20th century.
The exhibition is of uneven quality, but does contain a number of absolute gems, including the masterly oil pastel drawing Paris Interior (No. 31), the oil painting The Seine at Night (No. 30), and the colour etching Place de Furstenberg II (No. 46).
Although Ollis is an artist who belongs to a well-established tradition in British and European art, he has found his own niche within this tradition and we are all enriched for this experience.