PTA’s 40th @ CCAE (and the Electronic Catalog)

There’s less than a week to go until the opening of the 29th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards and the host of exhibitions that will bloom across Darwin.  One of the regular standouts in this field of winners is the Papunya Tula exhibition at Cross-Cultural Art Exchange (CCAE) run by Paul Johnstone just a block or two off the Esplanade.  To my delight, since I won’t be attending in person, the catalog for this lovely show, called Visual Rhythm and dedicated to the 40th anniversary celebrations of the founding of Papunya Tula Artists, is available as a download from the PTA website.

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But before I talk about Visual Rhythm‘s delights, I want to take a moment to applaud the increasing frequency with which electronic catalogs of important exhibitions are being made available of late.  In just the past week, in addition to the CCAE show, I’ve snagged two others.  The first was Outstation Gallery’s presentation of their August exhibition of work  from Tjala Arts, a show dominated in my eyes by two impressive canvases from Warwirya Burton and a stunningly lovely rock hole story painted by Tjampawa Katie Kawiny.  The second was Alcaston Gallery’s presentation of their exhibit at the Melbourne Art Fair, featuring raw new work by Sally Gabori, variations on a career’s worth of themes by Clinton Nain, and startling new minimalist experiments by Emily Evans from Mornington Island.

As many of you already know, I am a librarian by profession and an inveterate book collector since childhood.  Some people might consider being a librarian and a book collector redundant; I prefer to think of it as having the best of both worlds.  And more to the point, being a book collector will allow me to someday share my wealth with a library and help to build a world class collection of materials relating to Aboriginal Australian art and culture in America.  These days, being a book collector (to me, at least) encompasses the collecting of electronic books as well, and that’s why I hope that this trend of producing and releasing electronic catalogs continues to grow.  I am the richer for it, and someday the Dartmouth College Library and future generations of scholars will be as well.

As the risk of allowing this digression to overwhelm the intended subject of my post, I ask you to indulge my passion for books by an additional paragraph or two.  First, allow me to make a shameless plea: I truly am building this collection for the future and will appreciate, safeguard, and bequeath anything that is directed my way in any format, print or electronic.  You all know where to find me.

Second, much of my work as a librarian these days is consumed with the problems of digital preservation.  Libraries have a pretty good handle on how to keep books around for centuries.  We’re less sanguine about the future accessibility of electrons, and I say that with a respectful bow to the work of the National Library of Australia, which has an international reputation for its work in the archiving of digital media.  Web site archiving is still a dicey and difficult business after fifteen years of experimentation; and format migration and the emulation of obsolete software are largely untested solutions, even if everyone agrees that one or the other will be the eventual solution to our need to preserve the record of civilization as we now know it.  But I can tell you one thing: PDF is the de facto standard around which we organize our thinking about digital archives, and so if you are a producer of one of these lovely electronic editions, and you have a choice of platforms, please give PDF the nod.  ISSU and similar software-based solutions may have more glitz about them, and may in some ways better approximate the experience of holding an artifact in your hands, but I worry about the day when the next version of my computer’s operating system means that I won’t be able to enjoy that browsing experience any longer.  Nothing lasts forever in the digital world, but PDF will, I suspect, be with us longer than anything else.

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Very well then, let me return to my ostensible subject for the week, Visual Rhythm.  To begin, I love the title of the show and the way it captures so much of what’s contained in the catalog’s pages and will no doubt dance off the walls of CCAE when the exhibition opens on August 11.  There’s the stunning sinuousness of Warlimpirringa Tjapaltjarri’s contribution, all curves and clambers, pulsating with a sort of ancestral power that rivals the great works of Anatjari Tjakamarra (though quite different in style) from two decades ago.  Three small works by George Tjungurrayi share some of the punch, although in these latter instances the compression of the design into the elongated 87 x 28 cm format  makes them look more like an Indigenous expression of Boyle’s Law.  Ronnie Tjamitjinpa’s latest treatment of the motifs he used in the past to capture the Rain Dreaming stories from Wilkinkarra is similarly alive with writhing energy and, yes, rhythm.

There is a different, more sedate rhythm that marches through the works of Yukultji Napangati, Mantua Nangala, and Kim Napurrula: the rhythm of the sandhills, woven with cross patterns of color sometimes subtle (Napangati), sometimes brash (Napurrula).  Another work by George Tjungurrayi, a muted, simple, linear composition, partakes of these same slow movements across the sandy desert.  There is gentle periodicity, too, in Josephine Nangala’s small work: opposing U-shapes to one side of the canvas and interlocking pairs to the other.

If rhythm is repetition through time, accented with variation to sustain its momentum, then many of the works in this 40th-anniversary celebration contribute to the temporal perspective.  Johnny Yungut Tjupurrula is the standard bearer for a return to older visual strategies these days, and Visual Rhythm contains another of his incandescent interpretations of motifs that adorn the caves of Pintupi country.  Its composition appears artless and yet it is full of intriguing detail.

Morris Gibson Tjapaltjarri likewise harks back to compositional strategies from decades ago with one of the largest canvases in the show.  It’s a stunning set of detached squares in black and white, foregrounded by the glowing orange field above which they sway, reminiscent again of Anatjari or of Timmy Payungka Tjapangati.  Like the meander or key patterns in Patrick Tjungurrayi’s painting, these designs remind us of the continuity that underlies the innovations that have kept Papunya Tula vibrant through four decades of growth.

And so we come to the shock of the new: two small works by Wintjiya Napaltjarri.  Almost since the earliest days of women’s painting in Haasts Bluff and Kintore, Wintjiya has produced work in a signature style: designs that look like molten ceramic inlays of black or blood-bright red set in glossy fields of dense off-white porcelain dotting.  The two paintings included in Visual Rhythm (a detail of each is used for the front and back covers of the catalog, see above) seem like radical departures.

The compositions are much looser than those Napaltjarri has deployed in the past.  Long rows of parallel lines and a perpendicular stroke that represents the hair string belt or a nulla nulla organize many of Napaltjarri’s previous paintings.  Others have generated fields of U-shapes or circular rock holes.  Sometimes these devices are combined in large fields.  Here, she abandons the symmetry she often adopted when working in the 3:1 long-to-wide ratio of rectangular canvases and lets more irregularly formed icons fall about the canvas according to an internal logic rather than a grid.

But the most striking and immediate difference is in the palette Napaltjarri has chosen.  In one painting she has sketched the circles and arcs in red and orange, while the background dotting comes in two shades of white, one bright and one with a pinkish-beige cast to it.  Four colors in a single painting doubles Napaltjarri’s usual selection, and had the work not been attributed to her I doubt I would have guessed its author.

The other painting is in some ways more startling in its choices.  Foreground and background become intertwined and ambiguous: elongated pink shapes float atop the milky chalk-white background dotting, but in the two circular pink elements in the upper left quadrant of the painting, the pink becomes background to a series of circles or elongated ovals in white.  It’s almost as if we peer through one layer to uncover deeper ones.  The softness of the color and the almost translucent, watery white that allows the black underpainting to show through add an additional layer of depth; at first the whole painting looked to me like a colored frontispiece in a nineteenth-century book: the ones where the colored print is covered by a tipped-in sheet of tissue paper and the full brilliance of the illustration is not revealed until you lift the protective veil.

But the first and most startling impression was created for me simply by that choice of pink, so near to, and yet so far from the fiery reds and oranges that have been Napaltjarri’s trademark colors (along with her stygian black) for so long.  I went looking around the web for examples of a dalliance with pastels and uncovered only a few (including this one), simple designs executed back in 2007 and 2008.  My first thought had of course been of the late flowering of pinks and mauves in her sister Tjunkiya Napaltjarri’s work, showcased in a solo exhibition at Utopia Art in Sydney in May of 2008, the year before she died.  Back in those days the two sisters were painting together at the widows’ camp near the former residence of Turkey Tolson, son of their husband Toba Tjakamarra’s first wife Nganyima.  In an interview printed in the catalog for the Utopia Art show, Tjunkiya talked about the manner in which other senior women’s practices influenced her art, and she named Wintjiya as chief among them.  In paintings that Wintjiya did in the intervening years since Tjunkiya’s death, she reverted to her standard palette of reds, blacks, oranges on creamy white backgrounds.  Now, in this show, Wintjiya has broken out into a new manner of figuration and has returned to the pastel palette, in homage, perhaps in memory of that other Napaltjarri with whom she shared so much of her life.

Backwards and forwards, looking to the past and to the future; these are the visual rhythms of this 40th anniversary show.  It is a grand moment, it seems to me, of solace and celebration.  It is a small show for the ages.

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