Lance Austin Olsen (born March 21, 1943) is a Canadian painter and sound composer. His work focuses on the dialogue between his abstract paintings, and his parallel work in experimental audio composition. The physicality of his large-scale paintings, often incorporating collaged and repurposed pieces of earlier work, is echoed in his sound compositions, where found pieces of magnetic tape, and conventional objects from the painting studio, are appropriated as sound sources.

Old Man, 1964, lithograph, 30 x 22 inches

Early Life and Education

In 1958, when Olsen was 15 years old and struggling at a London grammar school, his art teacher Jack Elvin asked “…of course you are going to art school, Olsen?”. Elvin arranged an interview between Olsen and a friend who taught at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts in Peckham. Armed with “one big watercolour painting, some scribbly drawings, and absolutely no idea what I was doing” Olsen was accepted at one of the finest art schools in the UK.

Camberwell’s staff of working artists included several prominent names from the British art world, including Euan Uglow, Howard Hodgkin, RB Kitaj and, of greatest influence to the young Olsen, Frank Auerbach.

“I would creep into Auerbach’s classes and listen to his talks on painting and drawing and what he thought about a life dedicated to this work. It was amazing to me and set a fire in my mind somewhere.”

Early Career

Upon graduating from Camberwell Art School in 1965, Olsen secured a job in an advertising agency. He quickly realized that he did not have any desire for commercial art, and left after one week. Olsen took a job as a builders labourer, moving from job to job, while continuing to work on developing his art practice late at night.

Olsen married in 1968, and relocated with his wife to Western Canada.

Aftermath, 1978, oil on canvas, 6 x 8 ft

The Anthropic Principle, 1981, oil on canvas with glass eyes, 60 x 40 inches

Early Work

Olsen’s paintings from 1968-1990 focused on experimental figuration, loosely rooted in the thick, highly tactile oil paint surfaces of his instructor, Frank Auerbach. His works from this period were often interpreted as political in nature, but that was not Olsen’s intent. “I viewed the works as footprints and evidence of my day to day life”.

In 1991, Olsen exhibited Butchers Apron, Butchers Hook (Open Space Arts Society, Victoria BC, Canada), a series of entwined figure tableaus rendered in large-scale oil on paper works measuring 5 x 10 feet each. Olsen recalls walking around the monumental installation and suddenly realizing that he had “said all that I had to say with this mode of working”.

Nightblindness, 1991-95, oil on canvas, 60 x 120 inches

1990-1996

In stark contrast to Olsen’s previous decades working with the human figure, the 1990s brought constant experimentation with new mediums and subject matter, beginning with an ongoing series of large ocean triptychs, and obsessively layered drypoint engravings titled “The Garden of Cellular Indecision”.

Lost At Sea 1, 1990s, oil and caulking on wood panel, 48 x 48 inches

1997-Current

In early 1997, Olsen met sound and visual artist Jamie Drouin and developed an interest in experimental music. The two artists co-founded Infrequency Editions in 2001 as a conduit for publishing their collaborative works in audio, and Olsen’s graphic notation scores.

In 2009, a three month trip to Western Australia again changed the course of Olsen’s painting. “No more figures or oceans. Pure abstractions that had much more to do with music, sound, and the open placement of forms and relationships”.

“This movement between abstract sounds and abstract painting has created a situation where composition has become painterly, and painting has become musical – graphical scores that can be used as directional beacons for audio.”

Hidden Paradise, 2016, acrylic and collage on paper, 44 x 90 inches