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Lupulnga, by Makinti Napanangka

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.

Hood Museum

Political Storm Brewing, by Clinton Nain

Yunala, by Yukultji Napangati

Pukaratjina, by Joseph Jurra Tjapaltjarri

Close up view

Untitled, by Freda Warlapinni

Blue Water Hole, by Rosella Namok

Close up of the signatory dot technique

White Painting, by Nyapanyapa Yunupingu (on bark)

Previous Slow Muse posts on Aboriginal art:

Aboriginal Art, Sacred Land and Becoming Visible

Art and Meaning

Explorations in Landscape and Art

Ancestral Modern

The Brush is the Least of my Weapons

I Feel You

Icons of the Desert

Threading Through Abstraction, Micro and Macro

Spaciality and Language

Barbara Weir: Grass Seed Dreaming

Breast, Bodies, Canvas

From the Dreaming, It Became Real

Contexts: The Museum vs The Gallery

Painting, in the Larger Context




Boston Globe art critic Sebastian Smee was written a fresh and engaging review of the Fluxus show currently at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth. Generally known in the US through the work of artists and musicians like George Maciunas, John Cage and La Monte Young, the Fluxus movement capitalized on the high jinx, random access, playfully questioning approach that characterized the Dada era of the 1920s. Like the furtive and often transgressive ideas that had a significant impact on cultural development described in Greil Marcus’ book, Lipstick Traces, Fluxus has had its own leaky margins, spilling over into many contemporary visual art and musical forms.

My favorite passage in Smee’s piece came near the end:

The American writer Janet Malcolm once wrote that the spell of any work of art can be shattered by the sound of the nasty little voice in one’s head saying, “But this is ridiculous.’’ She meant, I think, that the reception of all art demands a suspension of skepticism. It demands whole-heartedness, sincerity.

Why? Because from the standpoint of life, art is at a disadvantage. It is artificial. It is not strictly necessary. And therefore it is never far from redundancy. The values we assign it are imaginary — that is to say, a great credit to our imaginations.

Fluxus artists made work that deliberately turned up the volume of that “nasty little voice in one’s head,’’ as if wanting to test our willingness to tune it out.

I like them for this. Not because I think the art world on the whole needs more silliness (most days it seems awash in silliness), but because such tests can have a salutary effect. They threaten our complacency. They yank us out of tired habits of seeing and thinking. They return us to first principles. And they underscore the provisional, fragile nature of the strange and extraordinary edifice we call art.

I am always interested in what can yank us out of tired habits of seeing and thinking. The importance of finding the fresh view is true for art makers as well as art viewers. So yes to first principles, yes to remembering the “provisional, fragile nature of the strange and extraordinary edifice we call art.”