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Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya

Grey Art Gallery, NYU September 1 - December 5, 2009

More often than not, the current art dialogue treats spirituality in an artwork as rare or extraneous. The acrylic paintings on Masonite boards and canvas by Aboriginal men from Papunya now on view at Grey Art Gallery take the spirituality of an energetic picture as a given. These works, in which the visual reenacts ritual ceremony, read as performances of memory. Like memory, they develop through repetition, collapsed views and ambiguous time, and a compressed color palette. With a trickery met only by nature itself, a near-neon green or orange occasionally interrupts the works’ earthy palette of clay-red, black, dusty pink, yellow, and white. Growth and fabrication feel interchangeable. The abstractions are magical in their earnest intention to change the course of events within a society, mystical in that both the initiated and uninitiated viewer will sense their oneiric matter. Dense patterning, never to be confused with decoration, activates sacred and spatially complex environments.

Old Walter Tjampitjinpa, Rainbow and Water Story, 1972. Pintupi. Synthetic polymer paint on composition board. 24 1/4 x 20 1/2 in. Collection of John and Barbara Wilkerson, New York.
Old Walter Tjampitjinpa, Rainbow and Water Story, 1972. Pintupi. Synthetic polymer paint on composition board. 24 1/4 x 20 1/2 in. Collection of John and Barbara Wilkerson, New York.

In 1957 the poet James Schuyler wrote of an Aboriginal painting on tree bark: “Aesthetically, it is more meaningful than our own weather maps, though no less an article for use.” It has been established that use does not preclude beauty, but this is powerfully true when the use itself is serious dreaming.

The Papunya artists use paint to evoke bodies in motion—bodies with a strong sense of position and knowledge of the space they inhabit, semi-circles in dialogue and clusters of dots with wills of their own. Charlie Tarawa’s “Queen” is also a crowd magnetized into a floating majesty. Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi’s overlapping concentric rings and roundels confront the viewer like a gently shifting mass of people. Scale is in flux: man is either a tiny dot or a large orb or the large orb is only part of the man. Likewise, the angle of sight ranges within one frame to account for the passage of time within a narrative. In Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri’s “Big Cave Dreaming with Ceremonial Object,” we may zoom in on stratified rock, as well as hover above the cave’s dark opening, all within the same picture plane. In this way, time itself is an important medium, as with dance or performance art. The embodiment of time is particularly complex in “Old Man’s Dreaming,” the exhibition’s sole sculpture. With sexual shapes painted in coral, black, maroon, and greenish yellow on both sides of a carved beanwood plaque, Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri imagines the final meditations of an old man who has been left behind to die by his nomadic family. The form, a gently bulging oval with wavering edges, dates to thousands of years ago, and in the most Jungian way, your body will recognize it when you encounter it.

The particular character of the dots and dashes identifies the painter; in some works the marks are so consistent as to evoke meditation, in others they form irregular accumulations, and in many they direct the eye’s path of travel across a composition. In the case of Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula’s “Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa,” an airy veil of dots obscures a dark layer of paint that the artist deemed too rife with sacred material to leave vulnerable to viewing by an outsider. The later the works in the show, the more evident efforts to conceal or abstract private knowledge become; in the 1990s, all-over patterning nearly obliterates explicit reference to ritual.

Exclusively men, the painters included in the exhibition worked and socialized in a corrugated tin shed dubbed the “Men’s Painting Room;” women and children were forbidden entry out of fear that exposure to “dangerous” imagery would harm them. Women in the society in the 70s and 80s were careful to acknowledge the work as “men’s business,” not as an act of obedience but out of a genuine instinct to protect their fates from the painting’s potency. Sparse husband-and-wife collaborations have gradually given way in more recent years to allow women to work as individual painters.

Anthropologists who had befriended the artists titled the paintings according to notes and labeled diagrams, though the artists generally did not feel the need to name their work, largely because the recognition of myth is so strong within their community. One exception to this, as I learned reading Professor Vivien Johnson’s essay in the exhibition catalogue, was Charlie Tarawa’s “An Audience with the Queen,” which he had in fact named “Title.” With this overtly nondescript identifier, more charged than the typical “Untitled,” the artist deftly avoids a fixed designation, all the while calling attention to his rights to depict certain sacred material and his solid connection to the land that brought the painting forth.

Note: Much of the information in this review derives from the exhibition catalogue Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya to which Roger Benjamin, Fred Myers, Vivien Johnson, R.G. Kimber, and Hetti Perkins, as well the collectors John and Barbara Wilkerson, all contributed writing.


Laura Hunt

Laura Hunt is an artist living in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2009

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