A Weekend on the Road: Exhibition and Auction

Harvey and I headed up to the Kluge-Ruhe Collection this weekend to see their latest exhibition Radiance: Seeing the Divine in Aboriginal Art, presented in conjunction with the Virginia Film Festival (which has a religious theme to it this year). It may well have been the most spectacular single exhibition that we’ve seen there and one which gives a more than usually effective glimpse into the richness of this collection. On entering the museum’s space, the first thing you see is a large classic line-and-circle composition by Fred Ward, and to its right a 1.5 meter bark painting of an ancestral kangaroo by Peter Marralwanga. Down the hallway a small work from the late 70’s by Mick Namarari hangs near a brilliant red composition by David Hall Tjangala, one of my favorites artists from Balgo. The large room at the end is a wonder: an enormous work from the 80’s by Anatjari Tjakamarra, Mickey Dorrng’s Wagilag Sisters ceremonial poles, an early morning-star rom pole from Ramingining, and another minor masterpiece by Mick Namarari from the early 70s. In other rooms, small masterpieces by the women of Balgo from the early 90s, an enormous work on canvas by England Bangalla, another huge desert canvas, this one by Ted Jangala Egan, a small and exquisite bark attributed to Mithinari, and to my utter surprise and delight, the large Bush Onion Dreaming by Limpi Tjapangati that graces the cover of A Myriad of Dreamings. Limpi died in 1985, and so his name isn’t among the best known of the Papunya painters, but every work I’ve seen of his is a gem. I had no idea this painting was held by the Kluge-Ruhe, but then that’s the wonder of the collection. We’ve been going there regularly–three or four times a year– for over five years now, and you never know what delights you will find there. Nicholas Peterson will be speaking at the Kluge-Ruhe on November 13, a Monday night, which rules out my chances of being able to hear his lecture.

There was a home football game being played at the University of Virginia this weekend, which effectively ruled out any chance of getting a hotel room near downtown Charlottesville, so we holed up in a Holiday Inn located in a town with the unlikely name of Short Pump. Short Pump being a little short on entertainment in the evenings, we decided to amuse ourselves by thumbing through the Sotheby’s catalog for Tuesday’s auction, which finally arrived as we were on our way out the door to Charlottesville Friday afternoon. Since we’re not bidding on anything this time, we drew up a combined list of what we’d like to be given, should the auction gods grant us 15 wishes, with no consideration of cost involved. I’m not sure I can give a better rationale for our choices than that: stuff that we liked. So here, in lot number order, are our selections. If you want to have a look for yourself but don’t have a catalog, the lots viewable are online.

Lot 17: Otto Pareroultja, Ghost Gum, Ormiston Gorge, Central Australia, Late 1940s. I first saw this work reproduced on Chris Hunter’s site The Hermannsburg School, and was intrigued by its depiction of a Central Australian landscape without a sky. Otto is an artist who frequently steps outside the conventions of the Hermannsburg painters, and this is unusual even for him.

Lot 23: Albert Namatjira, Hermannsburg Mission with Mt Hermannsburg in Background, 1936 or 1937. This is the work being touted as Albert’s first painting, but even without that cachet, the striking presences of Mt Hermannsburg with its horizontal striations rising behind the mission makes for a presence that belies the painting’s small size. The uncluttered foreground sets off the row of simple whitewashed buildings and the mountain’s base and the the effect of blinding sunlight against the shadows of the mountain works to bring depth to the composition.

Lot 26 Albert Namatjira, Untitled (Study of Ghost Gums), c. 1955. A late masterpiece to balance the early one above. In contrast to the early painting’s simple structure, this one is all tumbling hillsides except for the iconic ghost gum rising like a sprit from the ground. Paintings like this one demonstrate how much the sense of the ancestral landscape suffuses Albert’s “Western” style of painting and no doubt contributed much to the rehabilitation of the Hermannsburg School’s reputation after Seeing the Centre brought the paintings back into our frame of reference.

Lot 31: Yala Yala Gibbs Tjungurrayi, Tingari Men at Mulli-Ukutu, 1977. This is a classic painting, which is part of the reason I like it so well. The large size (163.5 x 48.5 cm) shows the Pintupi beginning to stretch themselves (no pun intended) towards the massive masterpieces of the 80s, and the composition plays with the frame nicely–the break in the connections among the campsites at the upper right is a touch that draws your eye away from the symmetry of the composition towards the story underneath.

Lot 33: Bobby West Tjupurrula, Kiwirrkurra Land Claim Painting, 2001. Im’ a sucker for historically significant paintings, and for work that physically represents the convergence of the two laws in the modern desert. Apart from that, it’s uncharacteristic of much of Bobby West’s output, and appears to owe something to the influence of Patrick Tjungurrayi in its composition. I like the subtlety of the depiction of the salt lake, as well, and the odd interactions of positive and negative space in the white areas of the canvas.

Lot 46: Prince of Wales, Body Marks, 2001. This was painted in the same year that Prince of Wales won the General Painting Award at the NATSIAA, and I suspect if this painting had been entered he would have taken the top prize with it. There was some sentiment in Darwin that year that the award was given to a “native son” whom everyone knew was in failing health, but this work shows that he needed no sympathy vote to affirm his status as a painter of powerful strength. I’ve seen few paintings that capture the sheer theatricality of Aboriginal ritual as well as this dark masterpiece.

Lot 51: Paddy Bedford, Saddler Jump Up, 2002. Paddy Bedford’s career continues to astonish me. It’s hard to remember that paintings from 1999 are “early” works, and equally surprising to see this color scheme in a relatively early ochre work. A friend was recently enthusing about a show he’d seen at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC a few years ago that featured Joan Miro and Alexander Calder side by side. This painting wouldn’t have been out of place there.

Lot 78: Maryanne Mungatopi, [Four Works on Paper], 2001. Of all the artists who have attempted to take the Tiwi traditions of sculpture and barks painting to the medium of paper, I think Maryanne Mungatopi has been the most successful, and the small suite of works offers ample evidence to back up my assertion. While I think that Jean-Baptiste Apuatimi’s more abstract canvases are the undisputed champs of Tiwi painting in introduced media, the small works on paper that Maryanne around the turn of the century combine the pictorial and the abstract styles with elegance and a dynamism that are unique to her corpus. 

Lot 90: John Mawurndjul, Ngaldadmurring (Saratoga), 1998. Mawurndjul’s writhing incarnations of Ngalyod and his abstract masterpieces of the mardayin ceremonies will doubtless define his reputation for decades to come, and rightly so. His studies of the saratoga have an unfailing appeal for me, however, and this work, with its black background and depictions of the lily pads among which the fish swim is a knockout in the genre. The blending of representation and abstraction that he produces in these works look like a Kuninjku take on the Yolngu concept of buwayak (invisibility) to me, straddling the border of the sacred and profane with exceptional beauty.

Lot 107: Abie Tjangala, Frog/Rain/Billabong, 1994. Abie Jangala was one of the first artists whose work we collected, and I still think he is the greatest painter to have come out of Lajamanu, and one of the real stars in the Warlpiri firmament. I like the way the radial quality of the design captures each element suggested in the title, how the symmetry and the simplicity bundle all those elements up together. The white dotting now brings to mind artists as different as Robert Ambrose Cole and the Watiyawanu painters, but exceeds their combined accomplishments. 

Lot 129: Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, Goanna Corroboree, 1973. Kaapa is another painter who deploys symmetry to great effect; a couple of weeks ago in passing Fred Myers made the point that Kaapa used the device as a means of representing the awesome power the designs express. In many of his works, though, I find the symmetry deadening or distracting, but here, balanced by the riot of background design, the explosive energy of the design and the amazing details in the depictions of the ceremonial poles give the work the shimmer that is the surest sign of power.

Lot 151: Makinti Napanangka, Travels of Kungka Kutjarra (Two Women) to a Site South of Lake MacDonald, 2000. I seem to be using the word “simplicity” quite often in describing our selections from this catalog, but it applies here as well. This series of works from 2000 used a more monochrome palette than similar compositions from a couple of years earlier, and stripped of the flashes or intense red or purple that distinguished those earlier paintings, these canvases have an appeal for me that I can’t quite otherwise explain.

Lot 153: Anatjari Tjakamarra, The Rockhole Site of Wakulla, 1987.When it comes to capturing that shimmer of ancestral power, Anatjari has few peers. Long before the optical tricks of the late 90s, Anatjari’s works with their combinations of large and small circles on heavily dotted backgrounds pulsed with an energy that was all his own. The glow of the white dots that ring the concentric circles against the dark background again puts me in mind of dancers emerging and disappearing in firelight as they recreate the Dreaming for initiates at night.

Lot 204: Fiona Foley, A Three Legged Dog Day, 1989. Foley’s works on canvas and paper are often created to raise funds for her large-scale public art projects but that has never in my mind detracted from their impact and especially their beauty. This mixed media collage shares the compositional strategy of a horizon line with many other two-dimensional works in Foley’s canon, as well as the device of repeating pictorial elements. The prints of the three legged dog in a starlike pattern swooping up towards the dark moon in the upper right hand corner meld the iconic and the celestial in a way that gives this piece a sense of mystery and immanence that distinguishes it.

Lot: 291: Philip Gudthaykudthay, Wagilag Sisters Story, 1993. If there’s a sleeper in the auction, I’d say that this bark painting is the one. The composition draws heavily on works created thirty years earlier by the artist’s father Dawidi and yet seems fresh and newly minted. The frightening, coiled power of the Serpent in the upper portion of the panel is one of the strongest depictions of the power of the wet season rains that I’ve seen. The variations on triangular shapes in the lower portion, all refigure the ceremonial ground that is central to the kunapipi, while each is intelligible as an element of the story of the Wagilag sisters–the goanna, the sisters’ footprints, or the sacred drone pipe. Let my final word be simply, “Wow!”

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