Below, two paintings, On the left, Johnson Ooldigi Lan’s Tjitji Kutjarra (Two Children [Boys]), 2013. On the right, Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, c.1665.
From the first time I saw the presentation of Desert Boards on the Raft Artspace web site in June of last year, I fell for the painting by Johnson Lane above. Even now as I look back at the archive of the exhibition, it still strikes me as the most amazing work in the show, a show that is full of strong, inventive paintings in a broad range of styles. I don’t know anything about Lane, other than the fact that he paints for Warakurna Artists.
I was hard pressed to even say why this painting appealed to me so much. Something about the compactness of the image, and the way that the colors, seemingly so light, had settled at the bottom of the frame. The starkness of the contrast between the light and dark is striking, but the darkness doesn’t feel oppressive; rather, if anything, it feels vast and weightless, and perhaps imparts a bit of that feeling to the circles themselves.
Well, we bought the painting and hung it. After several weeks of continuing to wonder about its appeal, one evening Harvey looked at it and said, “Vermeer. Girl with a Pearl Earring.” I grabbed the iPad, looked up the Vermeer painting in Wikipedia, and spent a while looking at the two of them as I perched on a chair in front of the Lane. I’m still as bemused as ever, but I’m convinced that some deep memory of the Vermeer was floating in my subconscious: the luminosity of the image against the black background, of course, an impression of circularity, of draping forms, of light falling in the darkness, or of light almost emanating from the darkness. Those judgements are vague, and probably inept, but I haven’t been able to get the comparison out of my mind. And not knowing what else to do with it, I thought to share it with you, my readers.
I hate to say that what appeals in art is the sense of mystery that it invokes. I don’t want to rest on the judgment of “ineffable (“too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words”). I would never suggest there’s the slightest connection between the artists, or that Lane had even seen, let alone considered the Vermeer when he sat down to paint; there is no argument for influence to be made at all. Yet the more I continue to look at the images side by side, the more I enjoy what each makes me see in the other, for example the way that the green, white and pink tones in the lower middle roundel fade in and out of one another like the blues and golds shimmer off each other at the fall of the drapery from the girl’s turban. Or the tiny trail of paint flecks that lie against the black at the upper right roundel like a distant astronomical vision, like the tiny moon and the wisp of a cloud below it, the places where light strikes the sphere of the earring.
But for once, I am content not to seek out meaning. Sometimes beauty is its own reward and serendipity, even in the eye of the beholder, a pleasure unto itself.