Thursday, January 1st, 2009

Beyond Sacred: Recent painting from Australia’s remote Aboriginal Communities: The Collection of Colin and Elizabeth Laverty

pages from the book under review
pages from the book under review

Colin Laverty is a Sydney doctor, who, along with his wife Elizabeth, has amassed one of the most singular collections of recent and contemporary aboriginal art in Australia. This book documents the collection, containing clear, color-accurate reproductions, photographs of the landscapes in which particular artists work and some portraits. There are informed essays throughout. The book memorializes the best painters Australia has ever produced, including Rover Thomas, Queenie Mackinzie, Prince of Wales, Jan Billycan, Nyuju Stumpy, John Mawurndjul and Paddy Bedford. They remind me of great jazz musicians: practitioners of a new idiom with very deep roots that is full of life; their works speak to many but are also somehow so individual as to be inimitable.  Until a long overdue survey show hits these shores, this volume appears the most definitive substitute.

My own awareness of the paintings of Australia’s indigenous artists, where the mythic currents of dreamtime are translated onto stretched canvas with acrylic paint, came about slowly and largely by happenstance. This diverse population (they speak over 200 distinct languages) unified by initial habitation of the world’s oldest continent, was the subject of Bruce Chatwin’s 1986 book on dreamtime journeys of the indigenous peoples of the Australian outback, “The Songlines”. A “dreaming” is a narrative of continual creation known by different tribes. It explains genesis, plants, people and animals and posits the land and customary rituals. The book also touches on the beginnings of when “Aboriginal art” gained international attention.

One of the final scenes in the book dramatizes an exchange between an indigenous Australian painter and his dealer (one of many redoubtable promulgators that are part of the story of this art) where the artist argues that he knows he is being lied to about his prices. Problems developed such as attribution and widely varying quality as well as exploitation by what are called “carpetbaggers” who cheated the artists and in some cases, forged paintings. By 2002, it was estimated in the Myer Report for the Visual Arts and Craft sector for the Commonwealth of Australia that Australian Aboriginal art was a $200 Million a year business of which only approximately $50 million makes it to the artists. The recently published, “Dollar Dreaming: Inside the Aboriginal Art World” by Benjamin Genoccio covers a lot of this story while it makes claims that aboriginal art is still a good investment.

Robert Hughes has called aboriginal art “the last great art movement of the 20th century” and it could be argued that this work is a distant parent of the recent “cosmology” genre characterized by painters such as Terry Winters, Matthew Ritchie, Mark Bradford and Julie Mehertu.

The last major museum exhibition of this work in New York City took place at the Asia Society in 1988. Robert Steele, an Australian, has a New York gallery specializing in paintings by Australian indigenous artists, but this painting has a relatively low profile in New York City. There are frequent exhibitions of this work in Europe, and, most notably, eight Australian indigenous artists collaborated with the architect Jean Nouvel on installations that form an integral part of the architectural structure of Nouvel’s Musée du quai Branly in Paris.

My interest was piqued several years ago when I spied a painterly oxblood-colored lattice-like pattern–the corner of a photographic reproduction of a painting–sticking up out of the used catalog bin in the Art section of Strand Bookstore. It was an oversize brochure that accompanied the Australian entries to the 1997 Venice Biennale. The work that had caught my eye was by Emily Kame Kngwarreye (1916-1996). The creative imagination of the artist had transmitted its power through the merest retinal suggestion.

Paging through the partially foxed oversize pamphlet I beheld her earthy brushed hatchings. One could perceive through the paint markings that there was an acute intelligence that had access to some kind of new information. It was very familiar as abstract painting, and very not, too. I didn’t understand exactly why—and still don’t. One is vulnerable to accusations of asserting a universality of forms in any enthusiasm for work that, in fact, has very specific attributes to a particular culture, but one cannot deny that there is an expressiveness in her work that communicates to even the uninformed viewer. To me, Emily Kame Kngwarreye was a brilliant formalist inventor. I bought the slim pamphlet for $1.50 and it earned a pride of place among my art books.

This past summer I was in Tokyo concurrent with the National Art Center’s featuring:  “Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye” the artist’s first full retrospective outside of Australia. The exhibition reconfirmed what I had felt seeing the work in reproduction, that at least what was important for me had to do with what I was interested in in painting: a use of scale that informed the body as well as the eyes, an unmediated experience with the painting act, engagement in materiality and painterly improvisation.

There were few uneven moments in this very extensive exhibition. The catalog text that placed the work contextually within its mythic landscape and body decoration tradition but it had somewhat disappointing reproductions.

A few months later I visited Sydney Australia for the first time, and was introduced to the works of many more indigenous artists, in museums, galleries and collectors houses, as well as seeing the Laverty Collection. Most Sydney art collectors have the work of indigenous artists alongside whatever else they collect, European Australian artists, Americans, English painters, some Vietnamese painters, in one case, historical works done by figures from the country’s colonial period, and so on.

Even the short period of time I spent in Australia has allowed me to understand that the work is not easily translatable. There is the immense history of the people of these remote vicinities, their complex system of associational knowledge and its life in the particular landscapes.  One could say that the book, perhaps unwittingly, has thoroughly documented what is most likely the final period where the art of this populous is done by hand. Through an interest in painting and also as a way to make a living has spread through the interior there has been more involvement in contemporary art and social, political and global issues, and rightly so, plus an interest in new forms.

Colin and Elizabeth Laverty [editors] with contributions from Judith Ryan, Nick Waterlow, Will Owen, Howard Morphy and community art coordinators such as Apolline Kohen, Will Stubbs and Andrew Blake, Emily Rohr, Tony Oliver, Paul Sweeney and John Carty (and others): Beyond Sacred: Recent Paintings from Australia’s remote Aboriginal communities.
Hardie Grant Books: Prahran, Victoria, Australia, 2008, 352 pages.