Painting to me is something of a tightrope act; it is between representation and the other thing — whatever that is. It is difficult to keep one’s balance.
–Ian Fairweather, 26 November 1965
Anita Angel, curator of the art collection at Charles Darwin University recently invited audiences to contemplate that “other thing” for themselves by presenting the annual survey show at CDU as an adventure in aesthetics, pure and simple. Previous annual surveys had been organized around themes of place, or as homage to donors. This year, the inspiration came via a new acquisition, Lawrence Daws’s etching, Head of Fairweather (1978), which in turn prompted memory of the quotation from Fairweather given above.The Other Thing — a survey show closed Friday after a too brief run, having opened only on September 10.
Aesthetics: we think of as referring to concepts of beauty, but its roots (and this is the sense in which it was used by Kant) go back to the Green verb that translates as “to perceive, to see.” (Think of anaesthetic, its opposite, and you immeidately understand this.) It suggests a pre-verbal appreciation of a thing, an intake via the senses unencumbered by cognition, ratiocination, perhaps even context.
Fairweather posits representation as one side of the tightrope: the parsing of signs, marks on canvas or paper, scratches in zinc or copper, into meaningful markers pointing to some object in the world outside our individual, subjective consciousness. And the other thing? Well, curator Angel prefers, like Fairweather, to leave it undefined and unverbalized: direct, immediate and sensuous.
Installation shot of The Other Thing at Charles Darwin University. Note in the left foreground a woven staghorn beetle by Sylvia Campion, painted with the American stars and stripes (?!!) All photographs by Kara Burns
To that end she brought together out of the collections of the University an assemblage of great variety, although somewhat weighted towards the work of Indigenous artists. In addition to Daws’s seminal portrait, the catalogue of the show lists works by Max Dupain, Fred Williams, and Caroline Rennersberger; etchings by Thelma Dixon and Marina Strocchi; paintings by Naata Nungurrayi and John Mawurndjul; weavings, sculptures, photographs, and prints laid out in close proximity. The variety of expression helped to dazzle, to hold back critical judgement, to engage and delight the eye and to delay the need to interpret.
This is a visual strategy well suited especially to the Indigenous works in the collection, it seems to me, especially given that so many of them emanate from Northern Editions, the printmakers who are fellow lodgers at CDU. In making the leap from painting or sculpture, in themselves Indigenous traditions, to the wholly Western graphic arts, these artists often invite us to leave categories behind, to focus first on execution (perhaps) rather than representation, on the aesthetics of line and form and the overlays of color and shape.
To add yet another dimension to the mix, the opening of the exhibition (by Apolline Kohen) was marked by the dancing of Jean Baptiste Apuatimi from Nguiu on Bathurst Island.
My thanks to Anita Angel for sharing with me the catalog of the exhibition and the texts of the opening night remarks she and Apolline offered. Special thanks to Darwin-based photographer Kara Burns, who graciously allowed me to reproduce a selection of her photographs of opening night here.