Papunya Rules

Several people commented to me that the newspaper reviews of Desert Mob unjustly overlooked the presence and contribution of Papunya Tula Artists to the assembled spectacle. As compensation, however, there are four Australian shows of work from Papunya Tula on now or opening this week, with a fifth recently closed. I don’t remember such a wealth of work being on display at a single time since Genesis and Genius was at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and the power of the internet is such that I can to a degree enjoy all five of them without having to visit four different states to do so. I’ll reflect on these exhibitions in the sequence of their opening dates.

The Papunya Tula show at John Gordon Gallery in Coff’s Harbour, NSW closed before Desert Mob opened, and at least in its online presence was a small, but very strong exhibition of five painters: Bobby West Tjupurrula, George Ward Tjungurrayi, Joseph Jurra Tjapaltjarri, Tony Tjakamarra, and Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri. The work on display by Warlimpirrnga is an austere sand hills design that is the first experiment in this style I’ve seen from the artist. It does share with other recent works, however, the technique of creating depth and space through subtle variations in the color of the dotting. Even in reproduction the delicate shadings of white dottings combine to form an illusionary shimmer and incident.

Joseph Jurra, who was grown up at Papunya by Willy Tjungurrayi, in my opinion is among the most accomplished of Pintupi painters, a master of any style that he engages. I first saw his work in the Art Gallery of Western Australia, which holds a large and utterly simple Tingari Dreaming at Tantjanya from 1987 (reproduced in the AGWA publicationTjukurrpa: Desert Dreamings: Aboriginal Art from Central Australia (1971-1993)) that consists of three vertically drawn, connected roundels embraced by alternating bands of white and dark red dotting. The three roundels are all slightly off-center from the path that connects them, giving the whole composition a vibrant instability and a visual power that is found in the best works of the early Pintupi masters. There are two works in the Gordon Gallery show, one a masterful, undulating black and white work, the other a massive 8′ by 6′ canvas featuring the dotted meanderings the artist has made his signature in recent years. Like the Warlimpirrnga, its subtle variations in color add depth of field and incident to the composition.

The black and white work by Joseph Jurra shares a compositional strategy with that of Bobby West Tjupurrula, who also has a similar and splendid work on display in Melbourne at the Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi in Rising Stars 2006, which opened on September 26. Slightly over half of the 22 works in the show can be seen on the gallery’s website; what I find most interesting about this selection is the breadth of the generations, especially among the men in the show, and the continuity it reveals in the work of Papunya Tula artists. Bobby West Tjupurrula is the son of Freddy West Tjakamarra; Uta Uta’s son, Martin Tjampitjinpa, and Pinta Pinta’s son Nyilyari Tjapangati are among the younger artists in the exhibition. Richard Yukenbarri Tjakamarra, son of Helicopter and Lucy, and Raymond Tjapaltjarri, son of Patrick Olodoodi Tjungurayi and Miriam Napanangka (the latter also in this show at Pizzi’s) attest to the continuing connections between the Pintupi at Kiwirkurra and Balgo. 

The older generation is represented in part by Hilary Tjaplatjarri (I was once told that he is the younger brother of Benny Tjapaltjarri, star of Ivo Burum’s documentary Benny and the Dreamers), who first painted during Geoff Bardon’s days at Papyuna, although he didn’t begin painting for the company until a decade later, after the settlement of Kintore. Likewise here is Charlie Tjapangati, who assisted Uta Uta with the great Yumari paintings of the early 80s, and who has been producing work for Papunya Tula since 1978. To look at Hilary’s Tingari Dreaming at the Swamp Site of Nginkulwalunya side by side with Martin’s The Claypan Site of Muyinga is to see the continuity in this tradition over its 35 years of commercial production. These works exploit the traditional Pintupi palette of ochres, black, and white, and the classic line-and-circle compositional elements. After looking at the colorful riots of Western Desert painting from the new art centers that have emerged in the past two or three years in small communities like Patjarr, I find something almost peaceful and certainly eternal in the elemental nature of these works. Charlie Tjapangati, like Joseph Jurra, is a master of many styles (and in my opinion, like Joseph Jurra, a vastly underrated painter). Charlie’s Tingari Dreaming at the Site of Palipalitjanya displays the subtlest of optical illusions and, along with Richard Yukenbarri’sThe Rockhole Site of Karliarnga, reminds me of the classic vocabulary of Johnny Yungut, but softened, blurred, and reduced. 

Nyilyari Tjapangati’s black and cream compositions are among the most interesting new work to come out of Papunya Tula Artists in recent years. They are striking for two reasons. First, their simplicity reminds me how essential drawing is to the Pintupi artistic tradition, a fact that has been somewhat obscured in recent years by the minimalist aesthetic that draws attention to the overall effect of the canvas. Although drawing is clearly essential to a work like the Warlimpirrnga in the John Gordon show, I find myself entranced more by the painting and the use of color in such works. Nyilyari returns drawing to the forefront. Second, the cream-colored ground of the paintings may appear flat and blank at first glance, but inspection reveals strokes in the paint that look like nothing so much as simple drawings executed with fingertips in the sand, a technique that brings this latest innovation squarely back to the tradition’s graphical roots in the desert.

This same technique of simple, almost incised background drawing is evident also in the recent work by Kayi Kayi Nampitjinpa. She is included in the new exhibition that opened on September 28 at Suzanne O’Connell Gallery in Brisbane, as well as in Rising Stars. O’Connell’s exhibition is particularly strong in its representation of recent work by the women of Papunya Tula Artists, along with works by Kenny Williams Tjampitjinpa, Kanya Tjapangati, George Ward Tjungurrayi and, most especially and wonderfully, Johnny Yungut Tjupurrula. Perhaps because of this emphasis on women, and for the works by Johnny Yungut, the strength of Pintupi drawing is again quite evident in this show.

In this respect, the new paintings by Lorna Brown Napanangka are a real delight. I haven’t seen much of Lorna’s work since her solo shows at Alcaston several years ago, and it is wonderful to see a strong selection here again. The paintings at O’Connell’s once more overflow with densely packed depictions of the country west of Watiyawanu (Mt Liebig). In one of these works, a 4′ x 4′ canvas in red and white, the four-square, circle-and-line grid is made explicit, revealing a structure that is often omitted from her canvases, and it’s a revelation in two ways: in its explicit representation of the circle-and-path motif, as well as in its demonstration of how these works relate compositionally to certain men’s paintings of the 90s. I am thinking specifically of George Tjungurrayi’s designs in which the circles and paths were discarded and the “background” spaces were left as the only visible markers. In some ways, Tjungurrayi’s compositional strategy of that period strikes me as quite similar to Nyilyari’s recent experiments, but significantly without the latter’s contrasting and foregrounded drawing. Like Tjungurrayi, Lorna Brown focuses in most of her works on the background spaces within the grids, but she fills them with wonderful, detailed drawing.

In another appeal to the viewer’s historical sense, the works of Wintjiya Napaltjarri, Nyurapayia Nampitjinpa, and Narrabri Nakamarra recall the first women’s paintings to emerge from Papunya Tula just over a decade ago. Wintjiya’s paintings here are particularly strong in their simplicity, but Narrabri’s lovely work may be the surprise of the show. With white and yellow strokes over a black-lined infrastructure and a yellow frame painted around the entire design, this work manages to be spare and lively at the same time. There is also a vibrant work by Eileen Napaltjarri, the most successful variation I’ve seen so far on the striped Tjiturrulpa rockhole paintings she’s been working for the past two years. Here pale pink dotting replaces the yellow of earlier works and combines with wavy, meandering lines to create a softer design that still retains its bold impact.

A few days from now, pintupiart2006 opens at Tony Bond Aboriginal Art in Adelaide, offering 20 works from 17 artists, many of whom are represented in the other shows I’ve examined here. The largest works in the show (at 183 x 153 cm) are by Joseph Jurra and Ningura Napurrula. The former is a densely painted version of his meander style, full of the depth of image that comes from tiny variations in color and paint application, while the latter is a superb rendering of the images of Wirrulnga, the women’s birthing site in which a single long red slash anchors a field of black and white arcs representing the rocks at Wirrulnga dancing among deep red roundels. 

Two paintings, by Yukultji Napangati and Doreen Reid Nakamarra, similar to a pair on view at Pizzi’s gallery, share a general effect achieved with horizontal rows of dotting in alternating bands of white and a contrasting orange/cream color. Yukultji’s is the subtler work, relying for its effect on small variations in the width of the black underpainting that shows between the dots. Doreen’s work is bolder, more optical, recalling early works by Elizabeth Marks Nakamarra in the manner in which the sharp changes in the direction of the lines produce a sense of topography and vertigo worthy of Bridget Riley.

Two artists unique to Bond’s show are Ronnie Tjampitjinpa and Patrick Tjungurrayi. The work by Patrick is noticeable for having a fair degree of iconographic variety and complexity given its relatively small size. These bright recent works of Patrick’s, clearly influenced by the time he spent in Balgo a few years ago, usually become more interesting as their size increases: this is a good exception to that rule. I’d like to say there’s some vigor to Ronnie’s contribution, but he still looks like he’s just mailing it in most days. I’ve occasionally felt the same way about some recent work by Walangkura Napanangka, but the largest of the three works included here has a wonderful feeling of pandemonium about it, arcs crowding in on the central roundel while at the same time being pushed back by the strong horizontal movement across the painting’s middle. The bright yellows at top left offset both the red/blue arcs top and bottom and the balance that teeters around the midpoint in large runs of vertical, horizontal, and circular pink dotting left and right. There is a dynamic to this work that is all too rare in Walangkura’s work of late.

Walalngkura, Makinti Napanangka, George Tjungurrayi and Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri are the stars of Well Represented, opening October 14 at Utopia Art Sydney. In conjunction with new work from these masters, Chris Hodges is presenting a second show, A Particular Collection. According to the announcement on the Utopia website, this latter exhibition comprises the works of 60 Papunya Tula artists, “not for sale, free to visit and a tribute to the Papunya Tula artists and a generous collector.”

Of the first show (Well Represented) Chris writes, “Good representation is an important asset to any artist and the Pintupi artists of the western desert are fortunate to be very ‘well represented’ by their community organisation, Papunya Tula Artists.” He goes on to speak of the broad range of artists represented by the company, and the support that it provides to members of younger generations embarking on the work of painting.

These new exhibitions, following on the blazingly good show at Hamilton’s Gallery in London in June, the auction of a major work by Ningura Napurrula coincident with the unveiling of her commission at the Musee du Quai Branly, and PTA’s debut “gallery” in Darwin during the Art Award weekend demonstrate once again the enduring importance of Papunya Tula Artists. If the company’s presence is slighted in news reports of events like Desert Mob or the Telstra Awards, perhaps in the end it matters not. Without Papunya Tula, the communities of Kintore and Kiwirrkura might never have been established; they certainly would not have been sustained. Special sales of artwork to fund the construction of a swimming pool at Kintore, or a new Arts Centre, are one form of such sustenance. The marriage of innovation and tradition in the work of “rising stars” like Nyilyari Tjapangati, the continuing strength of artists like Charlie Tjapangati, Joseph Jurra Tjapaltjarri and Johnny Yungut Tjupurrula whose painting came of age 20 years ago, and the prominence of women like Kayi Kayi Nampitjinpa and Walangkura Napanangka who once painted only at their husbands’ sides demonstrate other forms of sustenance over time. In reviewing these exhibitions I’ve once again seen the historical (and historic) sweep of the company’s accomplishments. Papunya Rules!

Kintore from the air, photo from the Northern Territory Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Environment, and the Walungurru Council Incorporated.

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