Down under painting
An exhibition of Australian Aboriginal art comes to Reno
Until I was 16, my art education consisted of two field trips.
The Spanish teacher at our small-town Connecticut high school had bused us to New York and let us wander all six floors of the Museum of Modern Art at our leisure, as long as we promised to get a good glimpse of the thick, impasto brush marks of a revered Van Gogh painting. The English teacher had taken us to the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, where we crowded into a small gallery on tiny, fold-out stools and listened to a docent passionately unravel the mysteries of a Mondrian painting.
I lived in a bucolic, postcard-perfect town with white picket fences and Colonial-era homes. (Not Colonial-reproduction-style homes. I mean actual homes from the 18th and 19th centuries. George Washington had slept in one. For real.) Our relative proximity to New York, about a two-hour drive, went pretty much ignored. Our art was Norman Rockwell.
Those two careful glimpses into abstract painting lit a match inside my teenage head. The seeds of the dangerous idea we rural New England teens were being protected from—that there was a giant, exciting world out there, full of all kinds of people who didn’t think like us, who had different ways of communicating—germinated and sprang into bloom.
I wanted in on that world.
This was pre-internet, so I wrote in longhand to a student exchange group and filled out a lot of paperwork. The following year, I found myself living with a host family in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia.
I was obliged to wear a school uniform I hated—a thin, cotton, cleaning-lady dress that offended my American sense of freedom of expression. But other than that shapeless little pinstriped symbol of confinement, I was free to revel in discovering this new world where corner store clerks would happily sell stubby, brown bottles of Melbourne Bitter to teenagers.
Even better, I had my very own Metro pass, a little laminated ticket to freedom I carried in my wallet. I’d take the Ballarat V/Line to Flinders Station and wander over to the Saturday market, where weathered old men with deep, black skin and very wide noses sat calmly against lamp posts playing didgeridoos. They’d breathe in and out at the same time to fill the long, hollow, wooden instrument with circulating air, making a distinctive, low, ancient-sounding, multi-pitch warble I had never heard before.
It didn’t take long to discover that these exotic people who made these exotic sounds also made abstract paintings, and that these paintings, made almost exclusively of dots, pulled at my heartstrings harder than Van Gogh’s and Mondrian’s.
I started noticing Aboriginal art everywhere. It decorated T-shirts and playing cards in souvenir shops. Bright, acrylic colored versions adorned the wooden boomerangs sold to decorate the walls of foreign tourists. The art teacher showed us pictures of “the real thing” in textbooks in class, and I could walk 10 minutes from the station to the National Gallery of Victoria any Saturday to see these paintings in person, rendered in the deep-red-brown earth tones of Australia’s outback.Aboriginal content
Dennis Scholl has a story about his first encounter with Aboriginal art, too. He was more discerning than I was. He’s a long-time collector of cutting-edge contemporary art. He said in a presentation last year at the Nevada Museum of Art, “I came away kind of uninspired, finding it repetitive and dull. Of course at that time I didn’t know that what I was looking at was tourist art.” He then saw some paintings at a gallery in Sydney, had an epiphany, and told his wife, “You won’t believe what we’re going to collect next!”
So, what’s up with these hand-drawn dots and eccentric, concentric lines making people from across the globe stop in their tracks? What I most remember was that in these exotic designs, I found the familiar.
These paintings I’d never imagined by people I’d never imagined grabbed me by the gut and ripped the world wide open, switching on big, imaginary, neon “Entrance” signs everywhere I looked. It’s exactly the way some musicians talk about discovering Bob Dylan, how upon first listen, Dylan suddenly distilled and materialized a worldview and an aesthetic for them, the exact type of expression they were looking for but didn’t know was out there.
There was seriousness to the paintings, even though they were just dots and abstract lines. I knew the paintings were used to tell stories. Even though I didn’t know the language or the history to read those stories, these works seemed accessible somehow, as if I could hear their tone even without being privy to their lyrics.
There was a handmade quality about them. The paintings didn’t exactly look easy to make, but they did a lot to make me think actual people could make artwork if they tried. (That’s a common thought these days, of course, but as of 1988, I’d never heard it uttered by anyone.)
Another of Scholl’s reactions to these paintings: Before he’d come across Aboriginal paintings, he was often irked by a sense that the artist’s hand was getting lost in contemporary abstract work.
I wore the dot-painted T-shirts. I bought the dot-painted boomerang and hung it on my wall. I spent the next two years filling sketchbooks with Aboriginal-inspired lines made of dots that eventually transitioned into my own kind of dots and lines.
It wasn’t as if any Aboriginal artist set out to say to some young East Coaster, “You got this, girl!” Possibly the opposite, actually.
Just a few years before my artistic revelation, in 1984, Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri first came into contact with white people. He was 25. He’d been living with a remote group of nomadic hunter-gatherers in Western Australia, a state that makes Nevada look densely populated and geographically small. He’s widely quoted as having said, “I couldn’t believe it. I thought he was a devil, a bad spirit. He was the color of clouds at sunrise.”
Yet, the world responded strongly to his work and work like it.
Tjapaltjarri started painting in 1987 and quickly became one of Australia’s best-known artists. By 2012 his work was featured in dOCUMENTA in Kassel, Germany, an art fair that, when it happens every five years, fills the covers of the international art magazines.
Beginning this month, Tjapaltjarri’s work appears, along with eight other Aboriginal artists from Scholl’s collection, at the Nevada Museum of Art. In keeping with tradition, the artists are all men, all elders. (Or they were. Some of them are deceased.)
They are all, according to the catalogue, text, “revered community leaders” and “custodians of ceremonial knowledge.”
Some use bright acrylic paints. Some use earth colors and natural materials. Some have taken the traditional dots and abstract lines into modern directions. Boxer Milner Tjampitjin paints grids and primary colors that refer back to Mondrian. Tjumpo Tjapanangvka paints kinetic, almost figurative images that resemble Keith Haring’s work a bit. Paddy Bedford foregoes the dots altogether and paints abstract, gestural outlines of steep hills using gouache (which is basically an opaque watercolor).
And as they paint to communicate between their spirits, their ancestors, and their children, the sounds of those conversations ring strongly with a lot of us.
The day I visited the No Boundaries exhibit, a group of schoolchildren were touring. I heard a lot of “oohs” and “aahs” and saw a lot of faces light up.
As for me, Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri is still my Bob Dylan.