YOUNG MINER, 1985
oil on canvas
91.5 x 76.0 cm
signed and dated lower left: John / Olsen ‘85
inscribed with title on stretcher bar verso: Young Miner
Commissioned by Pancontinental Mining Limited, Western Australia
LGC Limited, Brisbane
Corporate collection, Melbourne
Sotheby's, Melbourne, 21 November 2006, lot 228
Gould collection, Melbourne
John Olsen: Gold, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, October 1986, cat. 8 (illus. in exhibition catalogue)
The Director’s Choice 2007, Gould Galleries, Melbourne, 17 February – 30 March 2007, cat. 13 (illus. in exhibition catalogue)
Six months after winning the 1985 Wynne Prize for landscape painting, John Olsen found himself in a modern Sydney skyscraper in the middle of 1985 when Pancontinental Mining Limited invited him to travel to outback Western Australia and record the events surrounding the opening of their new Paddington gold mine. Olsen, an inveterate traveller of this country’s harsh interior, accepted the commission whilst noting the contrast of the Chairman’s twentieth storey harbour-side office to his proposed destination, recording wryly in his diary that in spite of this ‘they have a gold mine at Kalgoorlie in the desert; the idea of working there appeals.’1 Following his success with the Wynne it is possible that the company expected solely to receive a suite of landscape paintings but a closer examination of Olsen’s extended practice would have revealed his ongoing skill as chronicler of people, either through individual portraiture or as startling characters who ‘leer out of (his) painting, recalling for a moment the darker side of you beaut country.’2
Young Miner, 1985 is a wonderful evocation of this talent, depicting a bare-chested worker still covered in the grime of his occupation. It is as if the dirt has become part of his uniform along with his regulation hard hat, matching Olsen’s observation that ‘(i)t is best to let the fearful red dust become part of your nature. Everything will be touched by it, red grit in your tea, a few days out and the pillows become light red, your hair will be as dry as straw.’3 It is important to note that Young Miner is not simply a pictorial record, it is also a psychological penetrative study of a young man growing up quickly in the harsh and masculine world of underground gold mining. His eyes betray deep uncertainty and seem fixed on some unseen dilemma just outside the frame. Olsen magnifies this unease by capturing the miner’s right arm as it reaches briefly to scratch one broad shoulder, disrupting his hitherto defensive stance of solidly crossed arms. As Australians know too well, the mining industry follows regular cycles of bust following boom, and in Olsen’s physic portrait, his subject seems uncertain of his own fate within the Kalgoorlie region, a landscape ‘most abjectly left; the impression is of an industrial cavalry with abandoned rusted machinery, sometimes fallen on its side in a heave of exhaustion.’4
Following the completion of the commission, the resultant eleven paintings and eighteen works on paper were exhibited at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney before entering Pancontinental Mining collection.
1. Olsen, J., diary entry 5 June 1985, in: Olsen, J., Drawn from Life, Duffy and Snellgrove, Sydney, 1997, p. 239
2. McCaughey, P., Australian Abstract Art (National Gallery of Victoria booklets), Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1969, p. 8
3. Olsen, J., ‘Gold!’, catalogue essay in: John Olsen: Gold, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1986.
4. Olsen, 1985, op. cit.