icons of the desert
The roots of contemporary Aboriginal art are commonly traced to the activities of white schoolteacher Geoffrey Bardon (1940-2003). The place of this breakthrough was the remote native settlement of Papunya, about 150 miles west of the town of Alice Springs, near the center of Australia. (Several native groups were made to resettle there during the previous decades.) In 1971, Bardon, a schoolteacher, encouraged the children and then several of the adult men of the impoverished community to create acrylic paintings using traditional and sacred imagery. Previously, this imagery has been seen only in ephemeral art forms such as sand and body painting.
"Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya" — which is on view at the Johnson Museum through April 5 — emphasizes work from the early years of this tradition, in particular from Bardon's 1971-1973 tenure. The art comes from the collection of John Wilkerson (a 1970 Cornell PhD) and his wife Barbara, who became fascinated with the movement in 1994. Put together by the Johnson and curated by University of Sydney scholar Roger Benjamin (a specialist in modern art), the show will move on to UCLA's Fowler Museum and then to NYU's Grey Art Gallery.
Contemporary Western viewers will note the works' formal similarity to Abstract Expressionism and other modern art movements. This is an inevitable part of their appeal. However, it is important to understand something of the artwork's narrative intent and not to view the work as purely abstract or decorative.
For their creators, they are thought not only to depict, but also to contain actual traces of, ancestral creation narratives known at the Dreamings (Tjukurpa). The cycle of stories involves the exploits of ancestral beings living in a mythic, extra-worldly time. Their actions are thought to have shaped the world as it is today — its social and moral order as well as its geography.
The paintings can be conceived as landscapes. Rather than the empirical, observational focus of traditional Western landscape, however, these acrylics are more akin to maps, or to the tenuous resemblances of pictographic writing.
Even a rudimentary understanding of the works' iconography helps deepen their appreciation. Arrangements of concentric circles — "roundrels" in the language of the show's accompanying text — represent campfires, watering holes, or other "sacred sites." These are typically connected together via networks of lines indicating pathways and journeys. Bulbous U-shapes indicate people (the shape is derived loosely from that of a seated person). Wavy lines indicate water and other shapes represent animal tracks.
Dots are the most prevalent and well-known motif in Papunya painting. ("Dot painting" is a popular name for the style.) Most characteristically, they are tightly packed and cover much (or nearly all) of the surfaces, sometimes filling in other forms and other times obscuring them. Their prevalence springs from their general lack of concrete religious significance. Much of the traditional sacred imagery created by male artists is to be kept from the eyes of women, children and outsiders. (This prohibition is occasionally — and carefully — violated in this show, with potentially controversial results.)
The paintings are complemented by floor installation, which — somewhat teasingly — alludes to the traditional ritual origins of the culture. Arranged within a sandbox-like enclosure is a roughly square network of roundrels and traveling lines. These are done in a red, fibrous plant material while the background is done in a similarly textured white. Installed last week by a team of visiting artists, this temporary work will come down with the end of the show.
Reflecting the art's traditional grounding, the colors tend overwhelmingly towards the earthy: black and white, as well as subdued tones of brown, yellow, red and ochre. A number of the paintings make use of a flagrantly artificial bright orange; the effect is invariably garish and off-putting. For example: Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi's otherwise interesting Mystery Sand Mosaic (November 1974).
During the first few years of the acrylic art movement, Masonite boards served as the primary support surface. The boards in "Icons" are often irregularly shaped and tend to be roughly cut.
Formally and technically, the accomplishment of these paintings is markedly uneven. As one might expect of artists experimenting with a new medium, the technique used is typically fairly basic — and occasionally downright crude. (I will focus, below, on some of the ample exceptions.) The basic method involves covering the entire surface of the support with a flat underlayer — often black or brown — and then covering most of the surface with an intricate pattern of lines and dots.
Water Dreaming at Kalpinypa (August 1972), by Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece of modern Aboriginal art. Indeed, this "image of country being transformed...by Water Man" is a work of considerable visual sophistication and narrative resonance. Painted at a time of great rains and flooding, it reflects these concerns. Intricately detailed and strongly asymmetrical, it resembles a map in its lack of obvious structure. Against a milk-chocolate brown backdrop, there is a dense layering of forms rendered in brown-reddish cream, yellow, gray, beige, and black: multi-directional dots and striations, river-like curves, tiny roundrels, tjurangas (bandage-shaped ceremonial boards) — among others. Black dots indicate raisins (kampurarrpa), an important local foodstuff.
Classic Pintupi Water Dreaming (also August 1972) is another variation on the same theme. Done on an upright board (roughly a parallelogram), Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi's painting features a central roundrel in cool lemon-ochre lines, representing a waterhole. From it emerge spoke-like lines surrounded by further concentric circles, more widely spaced and becoming more rectangular towards the outer edges. These are said to represent "creeks" and "soakages" respectively. White dots on black fill in the background. Framing the scene to the top and bottom are a pair of lump-shaped hills — black over-dotted with brown as well as white.
Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri's almost square Yam Spirit Dreaming (March 1972) is both unusual and unusually compelling in its style and conception. A central X-shape emerging from the center dominates the composition. Painted in a slightly translucent white, various silhouetted forms branch off of the X: animal and human ("Yam Spirit") figures. Disconnected, scattered, pairs of U-shapes ("Yam Ceremonial Men") face each other. A leaf-like border, still in white, surrounds all the figures. The dotting, incessant, is red within and black without; the background is a pale yellow. The yam, notably, is central to the traditional (primarily vegetable) diet of the area.
A number of more recent works on stretched canvas or linen are included in the exhibition. Although stretching chronologically to our own decade, the late seventies and the following decade are the major focus here. In many cases, they show considerable advancement of style and technique.
Several canvases partake of a style incorporating densely overlapping roundrels and whitish, delicate colors. Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi's Tingarri Ceremony at Ilingawurngawurrnga (June 1974) is the earliest canvas in the show. Displaying somewhat hesitant brushwork, it fills its space with dizzying circles and waves of pale colors: white, pink, cream and ochre — all over a black surface. There are few dots. It shows "the men's ceremonial camp where sacred designs were painted on the novices' backs."
In a similar vein, but more fluent, is the un-annotated Pulpayella (December 1976) by Willy Tjungurrayi. The colors are similar. Imposed over a background of densely packed, overlapping roundrels is a central network of larger ones, spaced apart but connected with traveling lines. The foreground assemblage is vaguely figural, with a column of three roundrels running down the middle and two line-and-circle "arms" hanging down from the sides.
Tommy Lowry Tjapaltjarri's tightly painted Two Men's Dreaming at Kuluntjarranya (1984) is a distinctive and compelling large canvas. Its wide expanse contains two rows of over-scaled roundrel-lakes. The connecting lines have largely disappeared and the roundrels appear to radiate off the page. Dots (typically in neat rows) and lines over a brown ground: white, whitish clay red, ochre, black, cream. The Dreaming tells of the creation of salt lakes "200 miles south and west of Papunya": following the consumption of a "strong native tobacco," two healers (ngangkaris) died and their "bodies began to urinate copiously." Lowry's Ngulyukuntinya, from the following year, displays a similarly refined style. (Sadly, the artist died two years later.)
Despite the unevenness of the work, and the difficulties inherent in understanding their stories, there is much of great interest here. Although the full narrative significance of these paintings may be unavailable, the rich patterning of the most accomplished paintings and the iconographic density of their Dreamings will give viewers much to reach for.