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I was first introduced to Aboriginal painting in the early 90’s when my friend Colleen Burke returned from the Australian Outback with a cache of gorgeous pieces on bark and canvas. I sat for hours with her paintings and searched constantly for what few books were available in this country (it was, after all, back in the primitive B.I. era—Before Internet). And finding original works from these desert artists that could be seen in person was rare in North America. Scattered small shows happened here and there. I drove down to New York to see one, a group of Aboriginal paintings hanging at the United Nations which was really more of a cultural/anthropological event than an art exhibit. A gallery featuring Aboriginal work sprang up in San Francisco for a period of time and then disappeared. It was the inaccessibility of seeing this work in person that drove me to finally make an art pilgrimage of my own to Alice Springs. That trip was a life changer for me.
Much has changed over the last 20 years. First and foremost is access to the work. This year alone I have seen two major exhibits of Aboriginal works here in the U.S.: Ancestral Modern, Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi‘s collection at the Seattle Museum (and written about here), and more recently, Crossing Cultures, the Will Owen and Harvey Wagner collection at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth. Both collections contain extraordinary works and have both been promised to the respective museums. Great paintings from this region live here now.
Second, the work itself has evolved. Aboriginal painting began at a very specific point in time—in the early 1970s. A young art teacher from Sydney, Geoffrey Bardon, brought the first acrylics and canvases to Aboriginal communities. The time between those first brushstrokes and a major art phenom was as close to overnight as success can be.
Many of the works in both of these shows are by artists who are second (and even third) generation, following on the path laid by those first pioneering elders 40 years ago. The lineage in the work is evident, but these younger painters are not caught in a derivative loop of tradition and style. The work feels fresh, exploratory and yet still elementally Aboriginal. I connect deeply with the old as well as the new.
For those of you living in the Northeast, the Crossing Cultures exhibit at Dartmouth’s Hood Museum runs through March 10, 2013.
Previous Slow Muse posts on Aboriginal art:
On display at the Seattle Art Museum: an extraordinary (as in EXTRAORDINARY) exhibit of contempoary aboriginal art. Mostly paintings, the show has been assembled from the collection of a Seattle couple, Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi.
Some of my favorite aboriginal painters are well represented—
Emily Kam Kngwarray, Wimmitji Tjapangarti, Doreen Reid Nakamarra, Gloria Tamerr Petyarr and Kathleen Petyarr. It also introduced me to some new favorites including Maringka Baker, Eileen Yaritja Stevens and Regina Pilawuk Wilson.
My passion for this work is a long standing one thanks to my friend Colleen Burke who first introduced me to the Utopian painters 20 years ago. And after spending time in Australia (and the Western Desert in particular) my interest has only deepened. I have a few treasured pieces in my collection that I have been looking at for years and still find compelling.
Interestingly Kaplan and Levi became passionate about this work about the same time, in the early 1990s. After Levi was hit by an Australian Post courier, they used the money from the settlement to start this collection. I like their point of view. Many of the pieces in their collection are paintings I would love to be able to view every day.
If a trip to Seattle before September 2 is not on your agenda, do the next best thing and buy the catalog, Ancestral Modern. This is a beautifully conceived book with texts by Wally Caruana, Pamela McClusky, Lisa Graziose Corrin and Stephen Gilchrist.
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.
My friend Carl Belz has written about his encounters with portrait art while heading up the Rose Museum at Brandeis a few years back. He was asked to recommend a portrait painter for the retiring chairman of the University’s Board of Trustees. ” I immediately suggested Andy Warhol,” Belz writes, “who was laughingly dismissed as inappropriate, and then found myself briefly stymied. The art world I knew—the art world of the 1970s, that is—didn’t include boardroom portraitists.”
He eventually finds his way to George Augusta, a Boston-based portrait painter. Stepping out of his contemporary art world view, Belz liked what he saw:
George Augusta’s signature look, a descendent of Impressionism, blended confident and airy brushwork with a perceptive eye for likeness that felt everywhere natural, allowing easy engagement with his subject, and clearly indicating he worked from direct observation. With appropriate modesty, he allowed his pictures to be about his subjects instead of about himself. Relying on neither technical virtuosity nor the trappings of class—both of which plagued the portrait genre as I had come to know it—he comfortably partnered form and content while respecting in equal measures the full energies of art and life alike.
So began a long and fruitful relationship between George Augusta and Brandeis University.
But there is a larger arc of meaning for Belz that emerges from this encounter. Anyone who has “discovered” an artistic enclave or tradition existing in isolation from a contemporary art world that is high profile, elite, detached, controlled, and carefully artificed knows that startling moment of revelation that there are other ways of making art far afield from those confining constructs.
I had my version of that aha! experience when I first encountered Australian aboriginal painting 20 years ago. Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Gloria Petyarre, Kathleen Petyarre, Johnny Warrangkula, Rover Thomas and Barbara Weir are just a few of the extraordinary artists who emerged after art supplies were first brought to the aboriginal population in the 1970s by Geoffrey Bardon. With no exposure to Western art or tradition, these artists used their own cultural heritage to produce work that, while varied and self-defined, shares an approach that is painterly, authentic, mysteriously spiritual and completely captivating. I was immediately engulfed by it, and that encounter changed my life as an artist. (An image by Kathleen Petyarre is at the bottom of this post.)
Belz describes his experience with thoughtful graciousness:
Through my association with George Augusta, I encountered a first-rate, highly successful artist working in an art world that orbited in tandem with the art world I knew but never intersected it. Had I not been assigned my unusual task—a task I admit to undertaking with reluctance, as I tacitly subscribed to the conventional wisdom of the time and so regarded boardroom portraits as mere shadows of a once noble ancestry—I would have missed entirely the rewards I discovered in George Augusta’s pictorial world. Which got me to thinking about other art worlds that might be out there, unknown and/or unrecognized by members of my art world, but the specter of what I might be missing never haunted me. I realized that I could never see every picture painted everywhere in the world at every current moment—because that kind of cultural access was as unimaginable as it was unrealistic—so I contented myself with having learned to think twice before presuming an equation between the parameters of my world and the parameters of the world at large. What did haunt me when thinking about multiple art worlds was a vision of art itself, of its vastness, of its breadth and depth, of its ability constantly to sustain and renew itself, while we—we curators, critics, art historians, and sometimes even our artists—regularly did our best to cut it down to size, bring it within our reach, and squeeze it into our theoretical constructs. I know, we’re just the messengers here, the go-betweens linking art with its audience, and I know I’m not supposed to shoot the messenger. But I also know that the messengers don’t always do justice to the message’s meaning.
Great piece Carl. You can read it in its entirety at Left Bank Art Blog.
John Perreault’s popular blog, Artopia, has a recent posting that brings together a disparate variety of themes. Braided into Perreault’s personal ruminations is reference to “Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya”, the aboriginal art show at Grey Gallery (NYU), the “Mandala” show at the Rubin Museum, as well as a discussion of images also on display at the Rubin, “The Red Book of C.G. Jung” (newly released in English.)
On my way to New York to see both the NYU and Rubin shows, I will have more to write about both of these exhibitions when I return. Perreault’s posting is chock full of issues that are worth delving into in more detail, particularly given how boldly Perreault ventures into some controversial (sacrosanct?) territory. So more on this when I return this weekend.
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.
Barbara Weir is one of my favorite painters. As an aboriginal artist, she approaches her work with a different set of expectations and intentions than is typical in the Western artistic canon. Like other women from her community (including now-deceased Minnie Pwerle, Barbara’s mother, and international art star Emily Kame Kngwarreye), her work is closely tied to nature, ritual and the metaphysics of the aboriginal belief system.
Her story is compelling. From Barbara’s website, Elizabeth Fortescue details a bit of her genealogy:
In the Northern Territory of Australia, there is a former cattle station called Utopia, also known as Urapuntja, which lies 300 km northeast of Alice Springs. The land at Utopia, totalling 1800 square kilometres, was handed back to indigenous people in the late 1970s and is home to about 900 people who live in a series of small outstations.
In the years between about 1910 and 1920, when the country at Utopia was first being opened up for cattle grazing, a baby was born there to a woman from the Anmatjerre language group and a man from the Alyawarr language group. Their shared country was Atnwengerrp. The parents named their baby daughter Minnie Pwerle and, like so many Aboriginal people of Minnie’s generation, the story of her life would be one of struggle and endurance. But Minnie would also become a respected elder of her community and, late in life, one of Australia’s most acclaimed indigenous artists. Minnie was destined never to leave Australian shores; not so her daughter Barbara Weir, whose own paintings attracted international recognition and opened up many opportunities for her to travel overseas. Three of Minnie’s sisters, and Barbara’s daughter Teresa, would also begin to paint, adding their names to the roll call of indigenous painters who live and work in the remote communities of Utopia.
The modern history of art from the Utopia region began in 1977 when the art of batik was introduced there through workshops that were offered to the women. Painting in acrylic on canvas followed in the late 1980s, and Barbara Weir began painting in 1989.
Then, in late 1999, Minnie also began to paint. Her first solo exhibition was in Melbourne in 2000, after which her work was much sought-after. Minnie died in March 2006. Towards the end of her life, she had been living at Alparra, the largest community in Utopia. She remained a prodigious long-distance walker and never lost her bush ways. One Sydney curator tells the story that when Minnie came to cosmopolitan, inner-city Marrickville and surveyed the local gum trees – which were obviously not a supply of good bush tucker — she remarked dismissively that there wasn’t much to eat in the city. She stayed at Bondi where she was fascinated by the sea and walked up and down the beach all hours of the day and night.
In speaking of her work, Fortescue puts her work in its context of nature and songlining:
Long, tapering lines which elegantly overlap one another in many of Barbara Weir’s paintings represent the grass which was found abundantly at Utopia until the introduction of cattle grazing in the early decades of the 20th Century. The botanical name for this grass is Portulaca oleracea.
The grass has been important to the Aboriginal people for thousands of years because it bears small, black seeds which are ground up to make flour. Barbara Weir does not paint these seeds, but she paints the grass itself. The colours she uses reflect the state of the grass in nature. When she paints it green, the grass is young and growing. When she paints it yellow, red and black, the grass is being burned in a bushfire. When she paints it white and grey, it’s the aftermath of a bushfire. Sometimes she includes some red in an otherwise white or off-white grass painting, which indicates there is still some fire burning.
Many of Barbara’s paintings are titled My Mother’s Country. In these works, she pays homage to her maternal ancestors, their lands, their dreamings and their way of life.
I see grass seed dreaming everywhere. While there is no “California beach ice plant” songline in the aboriginal taxonomy, the visual relationship is ongoing.
Note: The text by Fortescue is from a book on Weir published by Boomerang Arts.