Sunday, July 28, 2013

Paul Sietsema at the Wexner Center for the Arts: Stop-Motion Drawings

The Ohio State University's Wexner Center for the Arts introduces its vast show of Paul Sietsema's recent work with this text:

"Paul Sietsema's multifacted practice explores the ambiguities of authorship and cultural production, the mutability of history, and the effects of representation and replication. Working is drawing, painting, sculpture, and film."
Paul Sietsema, Brush painting (green), 2012. Enamel on dyed canvas.
27 x 26.5. Courtesy of Terri and Michael Smooke. Photo by Ron Amstutz.

Sietsema's paintings, like this, are all two-dimensional and, despite the
limitations of photography, they (like this) are alive with color.

How true. Come on over. 

But you don't really have to be a graduate student or philosopher to be intrigued by and to enjoy the beauty in the work of an undoubtedly cerebral artist. 

The work in Paul Sietsema is all dated between 2007 and 2012, with the vast majority having been produced last year. The visitor to the show will understand that his 2012 production is an almost superhuman quantity measured both in large-scale completed works (I count twenty listed in the catalogue, which doesn't account for all) and in quantity of marks made. There are five sixteen-millimeter films, a sculpture, and many ink drawings and paintings in enamel on canvas. His work in every medium is haunting with its often ghostly, bare beauty; its perfection of trompe l'oeil techniques, and its improbable explorations of scale.

Sietsema is absorbed with the idea of mechanically-produced multiples, like photographs printed from negatives and screen-printing, even though every work in the show is elaborately, exquisitely unique. In many cases, Sietsema has made what are indeed large scale, "hand-made multiples" that are distinguishable only by small details. One such impressive "set of prints" is a series of four identical sail boa drawings, each picture 64.25 x 50.5," each drawn in ink to look like an old, black and white photograph on paper that's crumpled and warped with time—each aged in exactly the same way. These huge and phenomenally detailed drawings, Calendar boat 1, 2, 3, and 4, appear to be identical save for the numbers on their sails: 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013. The entire series was produced in 2012.

Sietsema has made many large ink drawings with the subject of sailboats, all with appearances of photographs on worn, creased and torn paper. A particular favorite of mine on aesthetic grounds alone is a diptych, Boat Drawing, from 2012. The right panel (each is a large 51.15 x 67.75) depicts sailboats catching the wind on a grey day. The left is another ink drawing of: fog? sea foam? clouds? the last images in the mind of a dying person? The sheet depicts something or nothing, in softly gathered form. Presumably related to the sailboats, it could be above, below, or surrounding them. It could be what they are in, have come through, or are entering. As the image of the boats themselves captures one instant in time, as we like to think photography does, roiling foggy masses can be from any moment— from the beginning of time to its end—and all equally relevant. Yet any one of them would be 
"caught" in the same way.

These magnificent images—which I may not show you because no images of them are made available and photography that would represent them is not allowed—are, of course, not made in a way that captures an actual single moment in time. They are made to appear as if they do. At their large size one sees upon close inspection that their perfect level of verisimilitude is achieved through the extemely time-consuming process of penning thousand upon thousand of small marks in black and white inks. In fact, to examine the drawings close up is to experience drawing that satisfies on an entirely different level. The landscapes of tiny marks have their own rhythms, and the collections of shapes contain great variety, as if any six-inch square of the surface were carefully composed on its own.

Sietsema offers an interesting series of 45 x 53 Concession Drawings, all ink on paper and, again, all dated 2012. Each features, from ever closer range, the inscription on a tombstone, "Concession a perpetuite" which (with the accents this program denies me) means, "Released to the eternal." Each is drawn to give a nigh-perfect illusion of three weighty dimensions, as if the top layer of the granite stone had been effaced in a slab and framed. 

The first, in gallery display order, presents a complete, arched headstone with the inscription in crisp, freshly engraved state. The lettering is an 18th century form, with extended verticals and strong contrast between thin and thick elements. This suggests to the viewer a sense of the gravestone's antiquity.

In a gallery remote from the first, another Concession Drawing is found. The major difference is that this one brings the viewer closer. We no longer see the top of the stone. The inscription is closer to us and shows signs of wear: The engraved edges are less crisp. The edge of the stone has a large nick in it. 

By the time we find yet another, several galleries along, it is drawn on green-washed paper, and the perspective allows us to examine the inscription very closely—a good thing, because time has effaced the letters to rounded cups, lost to legibility. The face of the stone, even, is pocked, pitted, and broken. Yes, time is conceding even this memorial to the perpetuity of memory, even as we spend a couple of hours passing through Sietsema's show. (The granite memorial exists only in ink, of course, though our conclusions are about something far more solid.)
Each of the Concession Drawings "records" with photographic clarity time's depredations on 
physical reality. Yet each drawing hangs in a different gallery, in a different context, surrounded by a different body of work. We have no hard and fast reason, really, to concludethat they are supposed to depict the same headstone. 

It is entirely sufficient to gaze upon any one of these—as it is to examine and admire any single work in this big show—and reflect on its considerable aesthetic beauty and connections to the viewer's experience.

But should one find all three Concessions during a gallery visit, questions might well arise about their relationships to a single or to multiple objects. Are their references to objects of the world or of the mind? Clearly, even memory itself doesn't last eternally, even when we consign it to durable granite, or even to its illusion. Sietsema has nudged us into the in-between world, where the mind somehow merges both perception of the physical world with memory and agrees that we'll call the outcome "reality."

A catalogue—Paul Sietsema, Ann Bremner, editor—accompanies the show, ISBN 978-1-881390-51-0. The essays and the interview are scholarly and general readers will find them difficult, but worthwhile. The photographs provide an invaluable record of the show.

Paul Sietsema remains at the Wexner Center through August 4. It opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, on September 7.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Of Phoenix Rising: Leonardo Drew at the Columbus College of Art and Design

By the time I left the show of sculpture and drawing by Leonardo Drew—just opened at the Canzani Gallery of Columbus College of Art and Design—I understood why its title is Exhumation. Going in, I didn't pay much attention to the title, for I was immediately taken up with the look of these mighty things—at once looming and harsh, suave and warm—that fill the gallery. 
Leonard Drew, detail from 155, 2012.
Wood. Author photo.

Nearly everything is brown and constructed of wood, and the forms—undulating, rocketing, rough and disciplined at once—sometimes sing out with beauty. But the closer you come to any piece, the more you understand that you spend your life shunning exactly the materials that Drew favors: decayed, splintered bits of wood, street detritus, scraps of filthy fabric, rusted shards of metal. And while there's no offal that I detected, my body instinctively reacted to the threat that I'd encounter it in just such collections of over-used, superannuated, abandoned, then salvaged junk.

But I have already misled you, for there is no junk here despite the fact that Drew's materials have been exhumed from urban shallow graves. Like an Enlightenment anatomist, a medieval alchemist, or a twenty-first century recycler, he's used his rude pickings for his own ingenious researches. His transformations, though, never alter the original materials. Every mark of history remains in every component in the work. Nothing is gussied up, painted over or hidden behind a decorative aesthetic curtain. If the phrase, "building on the past," has ever been given material form, it's in Drew's work.
Leonardo Drew, 14, 1990. Rust on wood. 103 x 83 x 1.25." Photo
courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins.

Rather than naming his works, Drew numbers them. The higher the number, the more recent the work. I like that this leaves entirely open the interpretation of any piece, which immediately brings the viewer back to square one: the materials and their arrangement. He has made what he can of them. Now we make what we can of the work. 

Drew deals in a wide variety of sizes. He presents in this show works as small as drawings of 24 x 24," and as large as a wall-consuming 156 x 216," which juts 72" forward. Yet every piece is constructed similarly, of many multiples of small components: sticks, fabric scraps, or, as in 14, rust and earth. His works are fascinating wholes that irresistibly pull us in to examine the beat up, burnt, and dirty microcosms they arise from.  
Leonardo Drew, 14, 1990. Rust on wood. Detail. Author photo.

A friend of mine once shared her poetic memory of looking out a high window in New York City down to a drilling site in the street below. She recounted how shocked and heartened she was by the sight of dirt—of earth—exposed by the sewer workers: She had forgotten that the city had anything to do with the natural world.

I'm reminded of that story by Drew's work. Number 14, a great, chocolatey slab composed of found wood with strips of rusting metal, manages despite its humble materials to communicate something vernal in its deep variegated dispersal of rich reddish browns. It doesn't make me ill-at-ease; it doesn't feel "city," despite the elements of its composition. Wood didn't come from the city, even if it became part of the artistic process there. The wood and its history are more ancient than whatever structures gave it up to Drew. Is it an accident that it appears to be a door? A threshold into the memories of another time and place, locked into the essence of the material?

Thatching. Ben W, Bell photo.

Leonardo Drew, 155, 2012. Wood. 55 x 58 x 61." (Left view).
Image courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins.

I was particularly interested in 155, a wall sculpture that called to my mind, above all else, a sense of place. Drew uses his charred, broken, and worn pieces of wood to create elegant forms and surfaces. These reminded me of walls made not from discarded, but from choice natural materials. I see the structures of terraced shale walls, of trimmed thatch; even of the wood pile and the forests that surround country homes with these features. The work suggests architecture in forested landscape. The precision with which Drew sees and handles surfaces create a unified environment of highly differentiated materials, comparable to woodland dwellings that seek to achieve the same goal of introducing the cultivated hand comfortably into a natural setting.
Forest House, A. Michael Flowers, Architect.
Leonardo Drew, 155, 2012. 55 x 58 x61."" (Right view).
Image courtesy of Siikkema Jenkins.

Leonardo Drew, 155, detail. Courtesy of
Sikkema Jenkins
Even without an 
interpretative fantasy like mine, the elegant contrasts of smooth, napped, and rough, ragged surfaces is fascinating. So is the way the improbable descending serpentine wall divides the work into two sections that also reflect each other, with refined and raw elements. The work is precarious; disciplined; dynamic, and stable all at once. And it is extremely beautiful, risen from the ashes and returned to the woods.

153 makes abundant use of the "thatching" technique to mysterious, poetic effect. The kind of surface contrasts he exploits in 155 are simpler and balder, and the shapes are  extraordinarily clean—as clean as a topiary garden recently trimmed. 

Drew's sculptures are apparently moved from place to place in units that local installers then reassemble. In 153, this practice is evident in the hard distinctions between the soft mounds and the cut-away edges that expose the grayed-out, grimy wood surfaces or "floors." They remind me too of the surfaces of anvils.

These surfaces had the effect on me of confusing my responses to the scale of the work. Standing apart and taking in the whole, I have the sense of seeing a topiary garden or exotic landscape marked by deep contrasts of hills and valleys. Yet when I'm close enough to encounter one of these surfaces, they have no aspect of illusion: They are just the size they are. They are literal and do not participate in any metaphorical or imaginary scheme.
Leonard Drew, 153, left angle. 2012. Wood, 50 x 71.5 x 28."
Photo courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins.

Complicating the question of scale yet again is the long comparative flat tongue that extends from the right side of 153. This is constructed of tiny scraps of wood insinuated into slots that run in parallel in horizontal lines like the buildings of different heights along avenues of a city seen from the air. Indeed, the similar scraps that ring the flat extension form a distant urban horizon.

Leonardo Drew, 153, "skyline and avenues,"
 detail. Author photo.
Again, I find myself discussing the work in terms of environments, which may or may not have occurred to Drew. But the larger point is that he creates poignant contrasts within highly unified compositions. He does this through brilliant manipulation of a single set of materials—materials that become elevated in the process. 

Exhumation includes a few of Drew's drawings. A drawing is, simply stated, a work of marks on paper. It's not made in multiples or by photographic process; it's unique. Few argue anymore that it has to be made of pencil, charcoal, or ink; but how far the definition stretches is a question raised on many occasions for marginal analysis. Like Drew's 137D.
Leonardo Drew, 137D, 2012. Wood, aluminum, paint, and graphite on paper. 37.5 x 43 x 25.5." Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins.

Leonardo Jenkins, 137D,  detail. Wood, aluminum , and graphite
on paper, 2012. Author photo.

It's paper mounted on wood, and it incorporates graphite marks as well as wood, aluminum, and paint. While the contrast of the the sheet metal next to the used scrap lumber is arresting at first glance, it only sets the stage for more and more poignant contrasts deeper within the work. If this is where the trash can overflows outside the promise of the future, it's an ironic story at the least. The aluminum side, with shapes very like those in 153, rather than looking suave, appears ill-constructed. It's sloppy construction is held together by far too  many screws, yet it still gapes imprecisely. On the wooden side, the junk wood resembles lightening bolts or an army of arrows and spears launched in vengeance—an uprising that will not be suppressed. The vitality seems not even to be "built into" the discarded and reclaimed wood: It's inherent. Drew constructs 137D to emphasize the life of the material itself, its vigor, durability—the spring in its soul. When one examines the wooden side close-up, one finds nothing like the conspicuous riveting that holds the pliable sheet metal together. Aside from a few rusty nails that came as part of some two-by-fours, there are no traces of the mechanisms that hold the wood in position. You know that it's joined by its own will and force.
155, 153, and 137D were all made in 2012 and share a similar aesthetic of elegance and power that arise not only despite the nature of the materials, but even because of it. In two much larger, earlier works, Drew handles his found materials in grittier ways—ways in which I feel no pull of the forest as I found even in 1990's wood and rust 14.

Leonardo Drew, 64, 1998. Fabric and metal with rust on wood. 120 x 240 x 6."
Image courtesy of Sikkema and Jenkins.
The immense, wall-sized 64  is composed of hundreds of small square boxes, each of which is stuffed or covered with bits of fabric, batting, threads, and scraps of lace and what might once have been quilts or rugs. As the full-scale photograph represents, from across the room, it appears like a huge, compartmentalized drawer for classification of small things. It's in your grandfather's workshop; in the dusty shop of an ancient someone selling sewing notions, trims and buttons. Unlike the dynamic works we've seen above, this piece actively casts off a sense of age. It's flatness is part of it and the fact that the material that protrudes from its surface is without suspense. It's filthy; it droops and hangs.  
To approach 64 and inspect it close-up is discouraging. It puts you in a place you really do not want to be. Nearly every small element potentially conceals something else and every instinct warns that the secrets hidden in this work are not the sort one wishes to know. Where every work we've seen so far is built around multiple juxtapositions (form, texture, scale, etc.), this one is continual infinite repetition. It is so tall and so wide that at no point standing close enough to examine its surface can one's field of vision even take in the edges.
Leonardo Drew, 64, 1998, detail. Fabric, metal, and
 rust on wood. Author photos.
64 is one work in Exhumation in which there is no projection, nor any beauty revealed in the raw materials. Because of the repetitious form and the insistent filling or screening of each box, the work becomes a warren, a slum, favela. Public housing? A prison? Concentration or refugee camp? It's the only work in the show in which the artist assumes the guise of power by implying that all the components of the work are disgusting. In no other work does the artist seem to assume the role of master, even ironically.

Leonardo Drew is a Black. Because of that fact, race has to be a factor in his work, as an immigrant's identity will always dominant his identity in an adopted home. Blacks have reasons to be ill at ease with concepts many of us don't even think to explore: history or future; our movement through the built and natural environments; the hazards of interpretation by others; possession of property; one's sense of personal worth.  

Through his selection of materials and the extraordinary, surprising ways he uses them, Drew deals with race metaphorically, I believe, in every project. That's the significance and sorrow of 64's bleakness and enormous scale.

Leonardo Drew, 133, 1998. Wood and mixed media. 144 x 158 x 2." Courtesy
of Sikkema Jenkins.
From ten years later comes 133, laid out in a manner similar to 64, but, lacking boxes. Only the contents remain. The boxes have dissolved to leave a freshly-painted white wall to which the street gleanings are directly secured. As in 64, we see nothing project, but neither is anything dangling or dirty. From a distance, the forms are all horizontal, like a linear language—Morse code's dots and dashes. It's a paragraph charged with meaning.

Although this piece is unlike everything else in  Exhumation for being an unconnected assemblage of materials, I find it exciting for the implication of legibility. Read it from left to right or right to left; start at the top or the bottom, and read into each mark the significance you bring to it. Still, it remains whole: The language is unified in its vocabulary. 

Leonardo Drew, 133, details, 2009. Author photos.

As in all Drew's work, the view gives substantially different impressions at a distance and close up. The elegant calligraphy composed into a measured, balanced composition from across the room appears as distantly spaced microcosms when examined close-up. Each element stands out for its own rough, used character. 

Nothing is more normal than white print or script upon a white page. In most cultures, and most certainly in ours, that is how textual language is transmitted. In this work, though, by an eminent Black artist, there's an invitation to think again about the nature of black words on the simple white background. In 133, each black mark, each word, is a workhorse. It is a mark filled with history and the power of experience. We tend to forget the language when we use words. We use words as if they are light and disposable, not as if they have carried loads and have histories.

Perhaps that's how history feels to Black people who helped build a white world where there's a tradition of their doing conspicuous yet overlooked work. Each dark element of this beautiful piece is both used, accomplished, and isolated in dignity. They make a pattern, like black pearls on a satin bed, seen for what they are. These are words read for their root meanings, not scanned over to get to the punch line.

 Leonardo Drew, 133, detail, 2009. Author photo.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Toledo Museum of Art

To anyone I'm in the position to gently advise on writing, public speaking, or self-presentation, I insist that one must never lead with an apology. If rules though, are made to be broken, my own is hereby reduced to smithereens: I am very sorry, dear readers, that I failed to make it to the Toledo Museum of Art's Crossing Cultures in a timely way so that my review could lead you to this astonishing show. Alas, this rich survey of contemporary aboriginal art from Australia closes on July 14. All of the material in it comes to Toledo from the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, however, so I warmly exhort you to include Hanover, New Hampshire on your next New England itinerary.
Jean Baptiste Apuatimi (Tiwi people), Parmajini (Armband), 2000. Ochres on canvas. 45 x 21." Author photograph.

One enters this dazzling show and is immediately thrilled by the graphic beauty of the galleries aglow with art in one of two palettes. Works like Armband are painted with earthen, ochre pigments, the colors of the world of inhabited by indigenous peoples of the continent's northern margins, areas called Kimberly, Arnhem Land, and the Cape York Peninsula. Those living in the Central and Western Desert have received rainbows of acrylic paints from government agencies promoting aboriginal art through the founding of art centers in isolated "outstation" communities. This 2007 painting by Shorty Jangala Robertson, Water Dreaming at Puyurru, is typical of the vibrant choices made by the painters with access to a full spectrum of commercial materials.

Shorty Janagala Robertson, Ngapa Jukurrpa Puyurru
(Water Dreaming at Puyurru),
2007. Acrylic on canvas,
72 x 48." Copyright 2013 Artist Rights Society (ARS)
New York/VISCOPY Australia
Encountering art from a non-Western culture can be as easy as this work makes it. Beautiful in design and color, even its organic shapes invite us to relate to it comfortably—however blank we remain about its meaning or history. There's not a contemporary decor it won't fit: From Pier One to your dining niche!

Crossing Cultures, however, keeps the viewer's feet on the floor. While we can appreciate every detail of the beauty surrounding us in these galleries, the curators have so artfully shaped and installed the show that the viewer comes away with more than redecorating ideas. Neither do we cling for very long to any preconceptions we brought in about who Australian aborigines are or fantasies we had about their primitive culture. The ethnographic, so hard to avoid in shows of art from non-industrial societies, arises only by way of its relevance to the circumstances under which artworks were produced. I was grateful that we did not have to deal with images of  dwelling, costume, lifestyle, nor physiognomies that appear strange or exotic to us. What we learn (it's a good deal) about the aborigines comes to us as knowledge of what is important to them and what preoccupies them. Those are the things people make art about.

It's wonderful that the photography in the first gallery makes clear what might otherwise be lost to us: that this is a contemporary art show. Images like the two above are—just like the photographs below—twenty-first century work. 

It's in the first gallery that we learn that most aborigines live in Australia's cities; that on top of their racial and cultural outsider status, they struggle with the concerns of any urban economic and social underclass. Their ties to their ancestral lands and mores are attenuated; their identities are often confused, challenged and conflicted. 

Here we get the only image that might confirm the usual idea of "what aborigines look like," if we have enough imagination to grant them the dignity and durability of their claims to ancestry literally in and of the land.

Ricky Maynard, Wik Elder, Arthur, 2000. Gelatin silver print, ed. 3/15, 22 x 18."
 ©2013 Artist Rights Society(ARS) New York/VISCOPY Australia. 

If one pointed to ancestry only in skin color, nose width, depth of eye sockets and the like, one would miss every important detail of Ricky Maynard's portrait of a man whose age appears not to diminish him, but to render him more permanent. As sand becomes rock, so time and experience appear to have treated him, to have condensed and hardened him: In time he will become diamond, one feels. The sharpness and clarity of this photograph are so perfect, that the refining pressure of time is felt to happen even as we look on. For any group of people, this would be an inspirational ideal.

Christian Thompson's color photograph presents an urban aboriginal person to be as hooded and ambiguously identified as the Wik Elder is solid and unmistakable. The two portraits were no doubt chosen as emblems of the poles of contemporary ethnic identity. This man/boy/woman wears not only the urban uniform, but a mask of flowers from the gum tree, vivid, sensual, and graceful. 
Christian Thompson, Black Gum #2, 2007. C-Type print, ed.1/10,
39 x39." Courtesy of Christian Thompson and Gallery
Gabriellle Pizzi, Melbourne, Australia

To aboriginal Australians, time is not divided into past, present, and future, but all time coexists. Aboriginal spiritual context is called by English speakers, "The Dreaming." In this cosmology, the world was created not only by human beings, but by communicating natural forces, animals, and plants that travelled all over the earth, shaping it with their movements. The significance of place, of geographical features, and of the elements are probably beyond our power to imagine. The Dreaming is also the Law for aboriginal people.

On the simplest level, Thompson's arresting portrait—shocking for its beauty as it is for its weird menace—can be read as a portrait of a displaced or uncertain person; or of one who is quite the opposite, knowing and wearing well the disguises that are useful in a society where (s)he won't find an uncontested home.

The Dreamings provide the basis for all indigenous Australian understanding of the world's creation, its natural laws, mutually caring relationships among its inhabitant plants, animals, structures, and mankind. As a result, there is a sense in which any aboriginal painting, whatever its named subject, is a portrait, for the human connection to nature and place is profoundly personal, both through the individual and related peoples. This is information the show makes accessible, without which it would be a mysterious but gorgeous abstract design show.

Likewise, aboriginial paintings will strike most of us as primitive, abstract, and ancient without our concluding through well-produced guiding notes that they are, to their artists, literal, realistic, and narrative or descriptive. A map of Australia pinpoints the areas of rural aboriginal cultures, which produce a variety not only of palettes in their paintings, but of characteristic designs and subjects. (Map courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art.)

Remembering that the continent is slightly larger than the United States, we can understand that "aboriginal" is not a unitary term, but one that includes many styles within a broad culture. So where the communities of the Central and Western Deserts paint with designs created from dots made with acrylics, the northern painters from the Arnhem region do fine cross-hatch designs called rarrk and paint with ochre on eucalyptus bark.

Peter  Marralwanga, Namanjwarre, 1981. 55 x 17,"
ochres on stringy bark. Author photo.
Peter Marralwanga, a Kuninjku, made this image of a freshwater crocodile in 1981. To a Western eye, it is representational and decorative. The rarrk technique of cross-hatching, however, derives from traditions of body painting on ritual dancers. The marks convey power and spiritual significance. The crocodile can never be any crocodile—a zoological specimen—for it is bound to represent the original crocodile of The Dreaming, with the significance it continues to have and will always have, and which is effective at the moment the artist makes it. The painting, then, is not only an exquisite painting, but an object of active spiritual potency.                                                

As objects of great cultural significance, however, these contemporary paintings  meet our eyes—they meet our culture—in the middle. Painting for a commercial market is not a centuries old practice among the aborigines. It is an activity introduced by the government during a new era in which the former ruling colonial class has recognized the devastation it has always wreaked on the indigenous people, including stripping families of their children for reacculturation in white home and schools. Painting has been introduced as an activity now that most of their former land-based activities, like herding, have disappeared as means of livelihood. A global market for this art has developed; everyone is behind this enterprise and expression of cultural continuity.

Chief among the advocates are the aboriginal artists themselves. It's not for the income, but for the opportunity to present their unknown and forever-neglected people and culture to the world that they are satisfied with the commercial arrangements. The solution to the obvious question of the sacred content of their work is that the content is within their control They commit to canvas or bark only partial stories, disguised stories, or images lacking the marks or elements that would betray the sacrosanct.They can introduce themselves and their ways without revealing all.
George Tjungurrayi, Karrukwarra, 2009. Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 60."
Author photo.

George Tjungurrayi's Karrilwarra describes ridges of desert sand with snake tracks through it. A gallery note informs us, though, that this sort of pattern also appears on objects that are spun through the air on strings at adolescent initiation rites. They call ancestral spirits even as they dazzle the initiates. The connection between the landscape created during The Dreaming; the presence of the creators; and the unity between creation of the universe and of the painting; this is aboriginal reality, all packed into the painting and culturally legible.

Johnnt Yungut Tjupurrula, Malparingya, 2001. Acrylic on
canvas. 36 x 36." Author photo.
Johnny Yungut Tjupurrula did not intend for anyone to penetrate Malparingya. Apparently the design of this canvas copies three-dimensional designs made in the earth for the closed sacred ceremonies of aboriginal men's groups. Only those initiated to the group would understand anything about the symbols, which would never be constructed for permanence in the first place. This is true of most aboriginal art before the present era, when it would have been produced in the sand or earth for spiritual, not monumental or documentary concern. Tjupurrula's painting is a deep secret then, as its marks would be interpretable to very few people even within his culture, and even those would understand that this is a remote approximation of the real thing.

Most of the art, of whatever style, in Crossing Cultures, tells a story about the peoples' connection to the land. This is clearly a relationship far beyond "Go Green." The aborigines exist in order to care for the land, which is not only spiritual and animate, but the source of every distinguishing human characteristic and power. Human characteristics and much more closely bound in spirit and mind to what we consider non-living: They bridge the distinction because for them there is none.
Susie Bootja Bootja Napaltjarri, Kaningarra, 2000.
Acrylic on canvas, 59 x39." Author photo.

One of the paintings I found most breathtaking is Kaningarra, an image both topographical and expressive. Made in 2000 by Susie Bootja Bootja Napaltjarri, from the station of Balgo in the Western Desert, the 59 x 39" acrylic work describes a water hole ringed by the history of its floods and shrinkages. The water hole is one of the major topics in aboriginal painting, for obvious reason, and this canvas seems like a pinnacle of its celebration as the source of life. It's an image that is of course expressive: The colors, their mixture and their dispersal between cool and hot, the tiny dots of green tucked in between the blues, yellows and reds, all drink up water with the same joy the earth does. The painting is the flowering that results.

The dot technique feels to me like it tows the line between expressive and literal. It's like Mecca's Grand Mosque at Eid. It's the holy center of the universe with people from every end of the earth radiating to or from it.

Arnkerrthe, or Mountain Devil Lizard, 2001 by Kathleen Petyarre, is a large and mesmerizing painting on linen (47 x 47") which seems, like Kaningarra, to offer a bird's eye vista at once literal and symbolic. Again, land, creatures, plants, and spiritual qualities are all portrayed simultaneously. Petyarre's marks and designs carry multiple meanings individually and together as an integrated artwork.

Arnkerrthe, or Mountain Devil Lizard, 2001 by Kathleen Petyarre, is a large and mesmerizing painting on linen (47 x 47") which seems, like Kaningarra, to offer a bird's eye vista at once literal and symbolic. Again, land, creatures, plants, and spiritual qualities are all portrayed simultaneously. Petyarre's marks and designs carry multiple meanings individually and together as an integrated artwork.

Without reading any text about the work, it is, like everything in the show, fulfilling on its own merits. Its subtle, muted palette and its gently interrupted geometry strike me as calmly reassuring and stable. Yet the grid-like design seems to contain a puzzle, too, in its careful conversion by unregimented routes. This is one of the works I find most pleasing on aesthetic grounds alone, where the trails of marks and shifts of colors lead my thoughts and feelings.
Kathleen Petyarre, Arnkerrthe (Mountain Devil Lizard), 2001, acrylic on linen, 47 x 47."

The background about the Mountain Devil Lizard offered in the notes only enriches the painting's impact though. It is explained that Arnkerrthe, the lizard, arose during the Dreaming and created dances that women perform today. In the desert, the lizard now travels across sand dunes, eating seeds but surviving thanks to the spines by which its covered, making it indigestible to predator. In the painting, then, one sees sand dunes, the erratic paths of the lizards, the seeds, the spines, the dances and the ancient spirit of Arnkerrthe. I find it deeply satisfying that the cultural crossing is performed so seamlessly here. A work of art I'd embrace spontaneously also performs precisely the task the aboriginal artists envision: It bridges the chasm between their culture and mine. It displays and explains in a way that is surprising, refreshing, and clear.
Paddy Bedford, Doonwoonan (Old Bedford Downs), 2000. Ochres on
canvas. 53 x 48."

Lest we believe, though, that aboriginal life is consumed only by The Dreaming, though, we are reminded by several paintings that the injustices dealt with primarily in the art of the urban-dwellers is the same kind felt by those living on stations in the deserts and remote areas of the continent. Old Bedford Downs (Doowoonan) is another work that represents a real situation, in this case a cattle ranch in East Kimberly in which Aboriginal Australians worked among European Australian but under unequal circumstances and with unequal accommodations. The tensions between them resulted in labor violence during the early twentieth century. Paddy Bedford's painting depicts the separate living quarters of the two racial groups and the narrow trail that holds them together.

I think these works that focus on the suppression of aboriginal cultural, on racism and genocide, place into powerful perspective the works that focus on identification with and guardianship with the natural world. Paintings like Arnkerrthe, above, or like Parwalla, below, invoke landscape and natural elements in ways so fresh and untutored that they seem to arise from awareness beyond conscious observation.

Parwalla, painted in 2000 by Elizabeth Nyumi Nungurrayi, refers to an area of the Great Sandy Desert where a type of grass native to Australian deserts grows. Spinifex grasses grow in hummocks and put down roots of extraordinary (nine feet) depth to capture what little water there is. The painting illustrates the white grasses and their blooms when it rains.

 Elizabeth Nyumi Nungurrayi, Parwalla, 2000. Acrylic on
canvas. 59 x 39."

All of the work included in Crossing Cultures has been collected by Harvey Wagner and Will Owen since 1988. Their interest in contemporary Australian aboriginal art—originally aesthetic—resulted over the years in many trips into the heart of aboriginal culture and vast appreciation of the traditions and significance of the many modes of their work. Crossing Cutures is composed of work Wagner and Owens have donated or promised to the Hood Museum.  

The catalogue that accompanies the show, Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art, published by the Hood Museum, ISBN # 978-0-944722-44-2, doesn't replace the heady experience of the art itself, but its essays about aboriginal life and art are readable, fascinating, and highly informative. The reproductions are excellent. A checklist provides an image and details on every work in the show. It really is the next best thing to being there. 

The trip to this extraordinary culture is more than worth it. That the aboriginal desert flower blooms at all after a history of genocidal assault is remarkable. That its roots are so deep as to support such blooms bears testimony to a durability both magnificent and profoundly poignant.