Geoffrey Olsen: Original and energetic painter


Geoffrey Olsen, painter and teacher: born Merthyr Tydfil, Glamorgan 4 November 1943; Principal Lecturer in Visual Arts, Oxford Brookes University 1993-97, Senior Lecturer in Fine Art 1997-2001; married 1968 Valerie Jordan (one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died Gloucester 6 December 2007.

Geoffrey Olsen was one of the most original painters to come from the Welsh valleys. His paintings are characterised by a bold, free-flowing use of oil paint in layers, and his work builds on the natural forms of his native post-industrial Merthyr Tydfil, on the Cotswolds escarpments of his home in England, and on the light and environment of Miami, where he lived for several years.

In works such as The Place of Burial Series, first shown at the Newlyn Art Gallery in 1990, and The Extramural Series, shown at the Museum of Modern Art, Machynlleth in 2000, Olsen's paintings achieve imaginative, dream-like, unsettling images of the natural world revealed to us as specific places where humankind has changed what was given. Merthyr Tydfil, one of the birthplaces of western industrialisation, bears the scars and implicit narratives of a century of explosive development. In Gloucestershire, Cleeve Hill, Winchcombe and Andoversford have all been formed by quarrying and Romano-British settlements and these inspired "The Three Sites" exhibition at Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum in 2000. Olsen's paintings excavate our past and re-present the world which we have marked.

Geoffrey Olsen was born in Merthyr Tydfil in 1943 and educated at Cyfarthfa Grammar School. He studied at art college at Bristol, Newport and Cardiff, and the Academy of Fine Art in Munich before teaching in Oxfordshire. In 1978 he joined Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University) where he lectured in art and design and became Principal Lecturer in the Visual Arts. From 1997 to 2001 he was Senior Lecturer in Fine Art.

He exhibited widely from the 1970s onwards, in Oxford, London, Europe, America and his native Wales, where he showed at the National Eisteddfod in Aberystwyth in 1992. Solo and mixed exhibitions also included the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, Camden Art Centre, London, and the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington DC.

On retirement from Oxford Brookes he began a particularly fruitful period: he took up the post of Artist in Residence at Florida International University in Miami in 1996 and there responded to the very different light and landscape with the series The Miami Wall-Paintings (1996-97), and a new collaborative approach to book production, both in a conventional form and using hyper-text narratives with the writer Jerome Fletcher. In 1999 he was granted an Abbey Award in Painting at the British School in Rome. He returned to Florida to teach on the MFA course in Visual Arts.

Olsen's work proclaims its making and deals with the way in which landscape becomes a human construct. The Merthyr and Cotswolds works replicate in their construction the archaeological strata of the land. The artist is drawn to the surface of places, but has to explore beneath the ground to locate the genius loci in a post neo-Romantic way. The sheer energy, the urgency of ideas in many of Olsen's paintings, like those of Howard Hodgkin, spill out across the painted frames.

Between 2000 and 2006 he held many solo exhibitions, at galleries including the Museum of Modern Art, Wales and the National Library of Wales. Recent mixed exhibitions include "Painting the Dragon" at the National Museum of Wales and "Wales Drawing Biennale 2000" at the Glynn Vivian Gallery, Swansea.

The "Small Paintings and Collaborative Bookworks" exhibition at Cheltenham and Aberystwyth in 2000 included his collaboration with the bookbinder David Sellars, Art & Beauties of Florence or Attempts to Make Paintings in the Renaissance Capital in the 1990s, which juxtaposed images of both Florence and Merthyr Tydfil, incorporating laser prints, screen-printing and acrylic works on Khadi paper. It was one of the outstanding artists' books of recent years.

He was diagnosed with leukaemia three years ago, but continued to paint. Until recently he was working on his Above Eighth Series that he started in 2001 in Miami and which engages with the experience of living in America and the nature of the American city.

I live with one of Geoffrey Olsen's paintings, Florence (In Pink) (1992-98): this work, acrylic on paper, with its pinks, greens, black and yellows, from the suggestion of that city's buildings and situation, is a constant reminder of his originality.

Tony Curtis

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