John Olsen recognised early an imperative to "let the totality of life" come into his painting (D. Hart, John Olsen, Sydney, 1991, p.57). For the artist, this totality was drawn from the realms of the fantastic and grotesque as much as from his experience of life as a Sydneysider and, later, from his immersion in the life, food and culture of Spain, Portugal and London.
In the mid-1960s, Olsen's paintings began to encompass food and the domestic subject of cooking and kitchen paraphernalia. The Picnic (1965, private collection), Portuguese Kitchen No. 1 (1966, private collection) and Portuguese Kitchen No.2 (1966, private collection) represented the genesis of this theme, and revealed an "intuitive exploration of an empathy and involvement with the ingredients and acts of cooking and feeding [which] is disarmingly complete." (Ibid, p.87).
At this time, this generous-spirited approach to his art infused Olsen's paintings, continuing upon his return to Sydney in 1968. Olsen founded The Bakery School in Sydney's Paddington, an art school which proved an ideal forum for the artist to express his intrinsic generosity. Students were exhorted to draw from nature in their artistic endeavours, and were sustained by their teacher who, in the words of one student, would "start the class - maybe we started at 10.00 or 10.30 a.m walk in and out, talk with each person. Then, at twelve he would go off to have a drink and to buy lunch. He would go off by himself and would always come back accompanied by others, like a magnet I remember him making wonderful things like Fabada Astoriana (a stewy thing) and then there would be barbecues in the back courtyard." (Ibid, p.93).
This vibrant melding of the aesthetic with the epicurean and domestic is manifest in The Kettle Boils. The eponymous kettle sings in the centre of the canvas, surrounded by numbers and letters. Fantastic birds and a snail populate the scene, while socks, dresses and a bottle float against the cerulean background. A grill, or possibly a chair, dominates the central section of the base of the work, but these symbols of the domestic life of the artist appear almost in a hierarchy, overseen by a large heart in the uppermost section of the canvas. Reminiscent of Portuguese Kitchen No. 2, Olsen has included a man's head at the lower right-hand corner of the painting, ready to absorb the myriad flavours and colours of the scene.
For John Olsen, the act of painting was not an end in itself but rather a medium through which he could transmit the essence of his chosen subject matter. His emphasis on the representational aspects of the practice directed his use of the brush, to delineate images that nevertheless retain a strong aesthetic, together with an emotive, passionate and distinctive use of colour.