Because I Could Not Go to Oz…

…Oz kindly came to me. (Apologies to Emily Dickinson devotees worldwide.) 

This past weekend we had the rare opportunity to see two museum shows of Aboriginal art in an American city, and this only a month after the opening of Icons of the Desertand Papunya Tula Artists in New York. In Washington DC, the Australian Indigenous Art Triennial: Culture Warriors is at the Katzen Arts Center at American University (through December 6) while the National Museum of Women in the Arts is hosting Lands of Enchantment: Australian Aboriginal Paintings (through January 10, 2010). Our adventure was topped off with Cate Blanchett and the Sydney Theatre Company’s performance of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Kennedy Center.

The high cost of transporting artworks across the oceans being what it is, only about half of the original extent of Culture Warriors made it to America, although we can be thankful that every artist represented in the original exhibition is still represented in Washington. Even at such reduced numbers, it is an impressive collection, and one that should open up new areas of appreciation for the breadth of complexity of Indigenous artistic practice and traditions for American audiences. Those over here who identify Aboriginal art with dot paintings or animal portraits will be in for quite a surprise.

There is, to start with, the selection of the traditional masters that grounds the show: Gulumbu Yunupingu, Philip Gudthaykudthay, Arthur Pambegan, Jr, John Mawurndjul, Waud Namok. There is a bit of classic desert painting in the work of D. R. Nakamarra, and Maringka Baker and Jimmy Baker of Tjungu Palya. And beyond, there is a wealth of examples of work from outside remote communities to testify to the burgeoning styles encompassed under the label “Indigenous Australian.”

Some of this work surprises, for both good and bad. Vernon Ah Kee’s portraits and wall texts share a refined austerity, despite the seeming difference in subject and execution. Gordon Hookey’s sometimes sophomoric humor and vitriol fades before an appreciation of his skill as a painter. Christopher Pease’s cerebral, historically informed paintings turn out to be ravishingly beautiful, and Julie Dowling’s historical portraits have never appeared lovelier. A small room of Ricky Maynard’s photographs has the feel of a tiny chapel of mourning and shows off the silence and stillness in his work along with its technical virtues, which appear here to be simultaneously brilliant and subtle. Harry Wedge and Elaine Russell’s naive stylings turn out to have much in common, even if a casual viewer might not mistake one for the other. On the other hand, Richard Bell’s appropriations come off as unrelievedly sophomoric, and Christian Thompson’s large scale photographic impersonations of Tracey Moffatt, Andy Warhol, and Rusty Peters are those rare works that actually look better in reproduction than they do in person. But taken as a whole, the work is impressive and is a credit to curator Brenda Croft’s critical and historical eye.

Sadly, though, this is an excellent exhibition in a terrible space. Take for instance this all too typical corridor featuring the work of Bidyadanga’s Jan Billycan and Maningrada’s Anniebell Marrngamarrnga.

Nearly everything about this is wrong, from the cement wall on the left to the hot-spot lighting to the cramped quarters that create awkward fissures and juxtapositions. Elsewhere, where the lighting is better, the curved walls (almost every wall in the exhibition space) lead to unpalatable choices.

Some of the spaces are too large, others too small, for the works they contain. The floor plan doesn’t allow for a coherent perception of the group of old masters that introduced the show in the first galleries in Canberra. As you mount the stairs to the opening gallery of the show, there’s no clear direction in which to turn, and no indication that the works you encounter at first have that thematic unity of tradition and prowess behind their presentation. Gudthaykudthay’s poles and painting are off to the left, Yunupingu’s at a distance to the right. Before you reach Pambegan and Marwurndjul, your eye is distracted by Julie Dowling’s portraits. There is a single work by Waud Namok to the right; we didn’t discover the other two paintings included here and hidden around a corner from the first until we’d made the circuit of the entire floor. That said, the presentation of both Yunupingu and Gudthaykudthay’s majestic poles is stunning, equal parts elegance and mystery.

As we wandered through the exhibition, we asked ourselves over and over again, what must the artists have thought when they saw their work displayed like this? Shane Pickett’s paintings were piled up into an unfortunate triangle that served them ill, while Dennis Nona’s four-foot linoleum block relief print Yarwarr wrapped and bowed around another curve and could barely be apprehended in its entirety. Nona’s sculptured dugongs (Apu Kaz) lodged around the corner to the left of Pickett’s paintings at an injudicious but unavoidable remove. One of Treahna Hamm’s works, a lovely possum skin cloak, is in the display case in the middle of the photograph above, while the other is up on the next level, hidden around the corner from Jan Billycan in another dark, dead-end corridor. An appreciation of the variety of the approaches taken by Christine Christophersen and by Nakamarra similarly suffer from being too widely dispersed by the constraints of the exhibition space.

I realize that this review is far too full of carping about the museum, and I don’t wish to suggest that you might or should pass up the opportunity to visit Culture Warriors if you are in or around Washington DC this fall. As Janis Goodman of Corcoran College suggested on local news, the show demonstrates how Indigenous artists are engaged with the themes and concerns that artists around the world wrestle with. (Artist Bill Dunlap’s comment that these artists have “leapfrogged into the real world” is offensive, but his condescension extends to his surprise that Robert Hughes is an Australian and a great art critic.) Culture Warriors also offers an all too rare chance to examine what “contemporary” means in Australian art. If your experience of Aboriginal art is limited to what you can find in the Todd Mall, you shouldn’t miss this exhibition.

If, however, you have fond memories of searching for Aboriginal art among the emporia of the Todd Mall in Alice Springs, and your nostalgia isn’t sated by Culture Warriors, you can catch the Metro back downtown and visit Lands of Enchantment at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA). Be warned that there aren’t any works from Papunya Tula or its artists included here, but there are several fine examples from other galleries and communities.

NMWA curated the 2006 show Dreaming Their Way: Australian Aboriginal Women Painters, at that time one of the first shows to rely heavily on works from private American collections (along with those Colin and Liz Laverty and Ann Lewis from Australia). In keeping with the Museum’s mission, the earlier show was restricted to women artists, butLands of Enchantment: Australian Aboriginal Paintings, drawn from another private collection in America, admits a few men, most notably Lindsay Bird Mpetanye and Greeny Petyarre, whose large Yam Dreaming from 2003 will resonate with Washingtonians who love the work of native son Gene Davis, the American stripe painter who emerged as something of a local hero in the 1960s. Its majestic size provoked a bit of a sense of mourning, despite its brilliant and lively colors, as I remembered that Petyarre is now too frail to make more than tiny, almost palm-sized variants of his former glories.

There is a large and gorgeous work by Dorothy Napagardi and a lovely, decorative canvas by Jean Nampitjinpa Hudson that reminded me of work by Napangardi’s daughter Julie Nangala. There are a couple of shockers, too. The work attributed to Makinti Napanangka should not have been hung, out of simple respect for the artist’s achievement in color and composition, and the eight-foot cartoon-like Atham-arney Story by Angelina Ngale Pwerle is an unfortunate choice to represent an artist whose work includes some of the most subtle and loveliest paintings to emerge from Anmatyerre country.

And after the art, there was Cate. I won’t say much; I could embarrass myself too easily. I’ve been enraptured by her subtlety as an actress since seeing her opposite Ernie Dingo in the early 90s television mini-series Heartland (US title: Burned Bridge). Onstage in A Streetcar Named Desire she seemed by contrast almost to over-extend herself, but she is no less wonderful for that. Indeed, the role demanded it. Joel Edgerton played Stanley Kowalski brutally and believably in a nuanced and highly commendable performance, Brando notwithstanding. Fifty years on, Blanche’s Southern culture is more often identified as “gothic” or “grotesque” than as elegant or refined, and the subject more of parody than tragedy today in America. So the Sydney Theatre Company would deserve some serious props just for mounting this show, let alone bringing it home to the US. But as Peter Marks wrote in the Washington Post, “If Cate Blanchett’s nerve-shattering turn as Blanche DuBois doesn’t knock the wind out of you, then there is nothing on a stage that can blow you away.” Too right.

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1 Response to Because I Could Not Go to Oz…

  1. Pingback: unDisclosed: the Triennial returns | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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