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John Olsen – Drawings in SKITSEHANDLEN

Thoughts from the exhibition


The artist’s sketches. Traces of intention; the journey from nothing to something, marked on unintended pieces of paper, exposed to unexpected curious gazes.

There is a certain pull one feels towards sketches. Partly fed by an intrinsically human curiosity, partly by a just-as-human need for deeper connection, stepping into the intimate space of the sketch leaves the onlooker moved. This move is towards a certain warmth; a recalibration of distance and desire. Finality, closure, an artistic product equal to itself – these categories we are trained to seek and desire from aesthetic experiences are suspended, when standing in front of sketches.

In the wider eco(logy)nomy of the artworld, artists’ sketches have the capacity to short-circuit deep-rooted relationships we’ve built with the work of art as such. The psycho-cultural wish to own; the territorialization of artworks and their circulation as products and property. These modes of operating in the artworld are faced with an alternative mode, brought on by the aesthetic phenomenon of the sketch: the finality of high transaction-based ownership over unique pieces is replaced with a gentler custodianship; a gesture that recognizes and appreciates incompleteness as a valid artistic (and human) experience.

In a sketch, the elements left unfinished do not constitute a lack or regretful loss; they do not engender a melancholy desire; instead they articulate a location of inverted desires—a particular grammar of absence, which still allows for the formulation of an aesthetic semantics of care, generosity, and fullness.

Image: Exhibition poster. Click to see website.


In Faaborg, art historian Theis Vallø Madsen’s SKITSEHANDLEN is an oasis of such inverted desires and intimate, full encounters. Among the permanent collection, curated exhibitions delve into the works of selected artists, to foreground processes, perspectives, and periods in their respective oeuvres.

From 9th October to 27th November 2021, SKITSEHANDLEN is showing ca 60 pieces by Danish artist John Olsen. Both sketches and drawings, the works are finally presented, following a process that started in 2019 and was abruptly interrupted by the artist’s passing away in the Autumn of 2019. In a collaboration with Olsen’s daughter, Aja Skyum, the gallery is now showing this rich and intense selection.

Under the thoughtful curatorship and spatial distribution of the works by Vallø Madsen, one has a valuable encounter (even if one’s first) with Olsen’s aesthetic vision and visual expression. Far from exhaustive, and without aiming for retrospective, the exhibition manages to capture essential aspects in the artist’s practice. There are several stops one feels corporeally compelled to make. One such stop is by the Eastern wall of the gallery—showcasing Olsen’s penchant for the exploration of darkness, putrefaction, or annihilation, as dimensions of nature, which traversed his work as a sculptor and visual artist.

These pieces are heavy with a sort of gravity pull; they hark back to the artist’s interest in the origins of our planet, the primordial forces that animate humanity and nature alike. These centers of energy seem to simultaneously generate from within and without the drawings; potential openings towards a plane of transcendence. The concentrated swarms of energy, otherworldliness and graphite compel reaction, and one should not move on, before this reaction has settled in.

Image: Exhibition view. Click to see website.

If you must move on, then turn around. A niche in the Western wall of the gallery harbours ten pieces of smaller scale, yet just as likely to draw one in. Alternating between organic and animal-world elements, nods to the origins of the universe, and details of the human shape, with the artist’s unique approach to abstraction, these drawings are each an opportunity to retreat into a landscape of dynamism and intensity. Intensity, in fact, is a conceptual red thread in this exhibition—‘INTENSITET NØDVENDIG’ writes Olsen himself, on a drawing of a ‘strong and fresh placenta’ on blue paper.

Image: Exhibition view

Necessary intensity—as a means or an end? We don’t know the answer, or even whether this is the question to ask. Intensity, nevertheless, is what comes to mind when considering John Olsen’s preoccupation with the grand themes of our lives; life, death, origins, the body. At a human, individual scale, to practice intensity may be the way to a better, more generous world; it may also be hybris. This duality is what gives beauty and power to our brief human lives, and what keeps us searching for the unknowable of the world.



John Olsen (1938-2019) is a giant of Danish art and completely unavoidable in a history of Danish drawing art. He was educated at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in1960-67 and has since participated in a number of exhibitions at home and abroad, including at the Venice Biennale in 1995, where he represented Denmark. He made his breakthrough with his "Wonder Cabinets" with mummified animals, curious objects, plants, drawings, sketches and photos.

John Olsen drew wildly, beautifully and saturatedly, even when he drew death and decay, e.g. in drawings of corpses and entrails. “It is transience that interests me. The beauty of transience”, said John Olsen in an interview on Kunsten.nu a few years ago. It is a great honor to be allowed to display a large selection of the artist's drawings in a gallery and exhibition space dedicated to sketches and drawings.


John Olsen. Denmark. Biennale di Venezia 1995, published by International Art Exhibitions, 1995


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