Ken Johnson of the New York Times recently wrote a review of the show, “Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings From Papunya” currently on view at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University. I haven’t seen the show yet but will be down to visit in a few weeks.
Western-centric critics frequently struggle with how to review and respond to Aboriginal art, and I find that disconnect understandable. A prickly cultural confusion persists about how to “appropriately” approach non-Western art and artifacts, a discussion I have addressed in this blog on many occasions. The discomfort and reticence that is so prevalent in many responses to Aboriginal art is sometimes accompanied with a much needed caveat that this is not just a trivial cultural divide. Johnson includes his own acknowledgment of the gap that exists between our two worlds: “The Aboriginal cast of mind is so different from that of the West that even the most extensive explanations can be mystifying. ‘The Dreaming,’ a recurring subject in Aboriginal paintings that has to do with the origins of the world, is a pretty hard concept to grasp for a viewer raised on French Enlightenment-style reasoning.”
A tip of the hat to Grey Gallery for their culturally sensitive accommodation of Aboriginal tradition regarding sacred material:
At the doorway leading to the Grey’s downstairs gallery, a wall label warns away Aboriginal women and children should any happen to be visiting. Two of the paintings below are the only ones in the show depicting people, but none in the lower-level group are any more compelling than the ones upstairs. They are restricted because they represent information that only male initiates are traditionally allowed to know. They are also believed to be inhabited by dangerously powerful supernatural entities. Secularized Westerners don’t think art can have that kind of potency, but who knows, maybe that is our loss.
I can’t speak for you, but potency is what I’m looking for every day.