More American Horizons

I don’t often write about exhibitions that I haven’t seen in person. Even the best documentation in printed form or on a website can seriously under-represent the quality of work on display in a gallery. Tony Bond has just produced a beautiful PDF catalog for the new Mimili Maku 2010 show that’s on display at his Adelaide gallery. But despite the excellent production values, the reproductions just can’t quite produce the impact of the works on the gallery walls. Take a look at the catalog, and then watch the short videothat Tony’s posted on YouTube and see if you don’t agree: the works are knockouts, even on YouTube’s small screen.

But there are two other exhibitions that I won’t get to see in person that I want to draw attention to nevertheless. They have been mounted here in America, and for that reason alone they merit a mention, although they are both fine shows in their own right. Both are out west, rather than on my more usual eastern seaboard stamping grounds.The first to open was the new show from Papunya Tula Artists, Art of the Western Desert of Australia, organized by Julie Harvey, who lent her considerable talents to the PTA exhibition last September in New York City at NYU’s WSE80 Gallery. The show, which opened on July 2 in Ketchum, Idaho (Sun Valley) features twenty-one paintings by Papunya Tula superstars and a few younger artists, many of whom were also included in the New York roster ten months ago. The works are on a somewhat more modest scale; only the featured canvas by Ningura Napurrula (right) reaches 6′ in either dimension, but they share the elegance and impact of their New York cousins. There is another brilliant work by Johnny Yungut Tjupurrula, who once again manages to evoke flickering torchlight playing over lichenous paintings on the walls of caves. Ronnie Tjampitjinpa’s pearl-shell meanders are intricate and hypnotic and optically charged, while Warlimpriinga Tjaplatjarri contributes another visually destabilizing but ineffably subtle painting of the western sandhills. The rising young talent in this show is Matthew West Tjupurrula, with a small (91 x 46 cm) canvas that combines the simple path-and-roundel motif with the right-angled meanders that inform the work of many Kiwirrkura-Balgo based artists from Patrick Tjungurrayi to Fred Tjakamarra.

Paul Sweeney was in town to open the show on July 1 with a lecture and a video presentation drawn from Hetti Perkins new ABC documentaries on Indigenous artists, Art & Soul. I’m pleased to see that these events were hosted by the Ketchum Community Library, which also screened the feature on Geoffrey Bardon, Mr Patterns, after the 4th of July holiday weekend. This past Thursday, Julie Harvey herself inaugurated a month-long series of Thursday lectures on the artists’ works and Dreaming stories. The exhibition closes on July 30.

Meanwhile, in another artistic capital of the American West, Melbourne gallerist Vivien Anderson has teamed up with Santa Fe’s Chiaroscuro Contemporary Art to produce a show of exceptional loveliness entitled Australian Contemporary Indigenous Art – Now. Chiaroscuro’s director, John Addison, is another in the large community of Americans who saw the Dreamings exhibition in this country in 1988 and whose interest in the new art of Indigenous Australia was permanently piqued by its treasure. As befits a new partnership to develop the market for Aboriginal art in America, Anderson has assembled an eclectic show that demonstrates a breadth of artistic endeavor spanning the continent from South Australia to Elcho Island.

The deserts are represented by work from South Australia’s Tjungu Palya (including Kunmunara Tingima’s large and lustrous Kala Ala(2009) at left) and Western Australia’s Spinifex Project. Burning reds and oranges dominate the works from Tjungu Playa for the most part, intercut with Maringka Baker’s rain-soaked greens. Ginger Wikilyiri’s mid-sized canvases run variations on themes that Baker has exploited successfully in recent years, but he enlivens the palette with bold strokes of white lines and fields of yellow, all alive with visions of perenties and death adders. In Kunumata (2009) the compositional tension between verdant sandhills, writhing serpents and golden sands is held in check by a grid of black circles that appear to float above the surface of the canvas at the same time that they penetrate the picture plane.

The contributions of the Spinifex Project are dominated by two large and brilliant canvases by old master Roy Underwood. A simple black background is overlaid by the red fires of an ancient war in Miramiratjara & Kurualla (2010), while Mulaya (2009) features a similar geometric design in blue, interwoven with serpents and emu tracks. Nulbingka Simms’s Wayul and the large women’s collaborative painting Tjintirtjintir (both 2010) both feature the characteristic Spinifex fields rich with incident and brimming with color.

The northern bark painting tradition is spectacularly represented in Santa Fe by a suite of works by Dhuwarrwarr Marika representing the sacred spring that provides fresh water on the dunes above the beach at Yalangbara. This is where the Djang’kawu ended their long sea journey and set creating the land and the Yolngu peoples. Spinning like inverted vortices, these depictions of life-giving water vibrate timelessly.

At Yirrkala’s Buku-Larrnggay Mulka art centre, where these paintings come from, art centre advisors Andrew Blake and Will Stubbs are known to speak of an artist’s “hand” with admiration: the quality we might call draftsmanship, or admire for its precision or unerring sureness. In my mind, no one among the many brilliant painters in the community has a finer hand than Djirrirra Wunungmurra, who creates intricate, dense, geometrical patternings of the Buyku fishtrap reaches of the Gangan River. She has supplemented these masterpieces of abstraction with a more conventional rendering of the river’s reaches that features the iconic crayfishes, snakes, and birds of her clan. In another striking bark painting, Buyku Vortex (2010), she has clearly absorbed the experiments Wukun Wanambi has engaged in over the last few years. But for me, the masterpiece of the show isYukuwa (2010), a pale white and black depiction of the yam that shimmers like a Chinese waterfall.

Rounding out the exhibition and making explicit the connections between art and ceremony is a group of morning star poles (banumbirr) by the Gali’winku master Gali Yalkarriwuy Gurruwiwi (photo by Vanessa Hunter for hunterlloydmedia). Massed and static collections of these rich, sacred objects have become a familiar feature of many a recent exhibition, yet they never fail to make me catch a breath when I see them. Years on, I find my delight and wonder in front of these magnificent creations as eternal as the morning star’s daily return.

A brilliant and beautiful catalog for this exhibition is available from both Anderson’s Melbourne Gallery and from Chiaroscuro in the US. It features an excellent assessment of the accomplishments of the Tjungu Palya artists by Christine Nicholls and vivid explications of the work of the Spinifex painters by Louise Allerton and Peter Twigg. Will Stubbs contributes a pair of his inimitable essays on Marika and Wunungmurra that are appreciations of art, myth, history and politics all at once. And finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, Gali Yalkarriwuy speaks in his own voice of the meaning of the banumbirr, the history of its revelation to non-indigenous people, and the startling affirmation of its power that he found in Christian sermons as well as in Israel, Japan, and Inuit lands. 

Australian Contemporary Indigenous Art Now will be on display in Santa Fe, New Mexico until August 31.

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