Minnie Pwerle, Bush Melon Seed
It is in the nature of an artist to look for commonalities between contemporary concepts of form and those of ancient or indigenous cultures. Brahms and Schubert wandered the countryside listening to and absorbing native, folk and gypsy musical idioms, incorporating many of those traditions into their compositions. Travel for me is similar, inspired by visual iconography that lies outside the Western “songline” but speaks to it nonetheless.
I certainly felt that way about encountering the aboriginal women artists of Utopia, in particular Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Minnie Pwerle. Although never exposed to contemporary western art, these women produced paintings that are conversant with something I was seeing in the work of Western artists I admired like Jackson Pollock, Brice Marden and Joan Snyder. From an earlier post on Slow Muse:
I traveled to the center of Australia with the hope that I could step deeper into understanding why I have such a powerful attraction to aboriginal art. For 15 years I have been studying these works, often only in reproduction, and my attachment has only deepened with time. While in Alice Springs, I must have looked at several thousand paintings. Sitting with some of the aboriginal artists, I was convinced that they are feeling and seeing the world in a way that is completely different than me. Their boundaries are different: It feels as if they carry the land inside them. Not the image of the land, the land.
I was struggling with the language to describe this significant difference when I fell onto an extraordinary book––Metonymy in Contemporary Art, by Denise Green. Green is an artist, an Australian, and a cerebral thinker who has articulated some of my own questions about the aboriginal world view as it relates to the context of art making.
Here is how she describes her own work: “Denise Green introduces the concept of metomymic thinking, as developed by the late poet and linguist, A. K. Ramanujan, one that is often different from what is present in Western art critical writing. In Ramanujan’s formulation of metonymic thinking, the human and natural worlds are intrinsically related to one another as are the transcendent and mundane worlds. Metonymic thinking in contemporary art implies that one must take into account the inner world of the artist. When artists create metonymically there is a fusion between an inner state of mind and outer material world.”
In her book, Green takes on the likes of Clement Greenberg and Walter Benjamin. Both have argued against subjectivity in painting, and Green asserts that the hegemony of their viewpoints in western art criticism has inhibited a deeper understanding of painting. She wants to open up the possibility of viewing contemporary art from a more “global and pluralistic perspective.”
Another body of work that speaks to me multi-dimensionally: the textiles of Bhutan. The weaving tradition in Bhutan is a famous one, and that long history of textile design does create an armature of structure that informs the work. But within that form, the colors and patternings are more than what they seem on the surface. There is something else going on.
The visual experience of Bhutanese textiles is not confined to the shops or museums. Traditional dress is required of each Bhutanese when in public, so just walking the streets of Thimphu is a visual feast.
My lastest discovery: Abstract tantric images. the book, Tantra Songs, features the images collected by French poet Franck André Jamme. Using tempera, gouache and watercolor on salvaged paper, these images are based on hand written illustrated religious treatises dating back to the 17th century.
These images are just what I looked for when I was in India and only occasionally caught sight of. Their rarity is clear when you read Jamme’s account of how he found his way to these works. They cross over into that zone that Green describes as metonymic—a fusion between the inner state of mind and the outer material world.
My friend Altoon Sultan wrote a beautiful post about Tantra Song. I wasn’t surprised that we were both drawn to these images quite independently. Her post can be read in its entirety here.