In 2008, collectors Colin and Liz Laverty set out to emphasise just how comfortable they felt in moving on from admiring and buying some of Australia’s most adventurous Abstract Expressionist art to doing the same for Aboriginal art. In their book ‘Beyond Sacred‘, there were essays by the likes of Nick Waterlow, Howard Morphy and Colin himself, all making a case for the parallels. Now this attitude has gone off-shore with the debut of a US national tour for the Dennis and Debra Scholl Collection of nine Aboriginal artists, and the publication of a catalogue that, in many ways, takes the case for equality of approach between Western and Aboriginal contemporary painters even further.
‘No Boundaries’ is the title of both book (published by Prestel in the US) and show to reflect the idea that racial boundaries have been crossed. But it also suggests that the chosen artists “ all Elders and all men “ have transcended their duties as story-tellers to the tribe to become artists pure and simple, leaving behind the ‘boundary’ of ethnography to become some of the finest abstract painters this planet has ever seen in Dennis Scholl’s own words.
Indeed, Scholl has taken a rapier to the issue by obtaining the seal of approval of no lesser an art-world player than Jens Hoffman, Deputy Director of the Jewish Museum in New York and formerly director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in London and both Shanghai and Istanbul Biennials. He takes off from the oft cited Clement Greenberg misreading that the ideal of Modernism as the critic saw it in the 1950 and 60s in New York was a canvas with no meaning, one that resisted imitating the real world. Hoffman now sees abstraction as having moved beyond such a limitation of being an end in itself to manifest experience, and at times, even, to highlight the impossibility of representation. Since Aboriginal abstractionists never intended to be meaningless (just obscure in their meaning), Hoffman speculates whether their ground-breaking works should properly shed light and language to an interpretation of Western contemporary painting as well.
In other words, Aboriginal art is ahead of the Western game!
Let me remind you about Dennis and Debra Scholl. They’d been collecting and commissioning non-Indigenous art since 1978, developed their own showcase in Miami, called World Class Boxing after the previous occupants of the building, for a collection which had surpassed a thousand by buying one work every 10 days over some 37 years, and they’d employed serious curators to mould exhibitions and write catalogues. They had also developed excellent connections with established US contemporary art institutions, to whom they’d lend their wares.
But that trans-Atlantic scene was getting stale. Scholl admits that he and Debra had grown a little tired of the cult of personality and money that the contemporary art world had become, so were looking to re-energise. As Dennis was in and out of Australia with wine that he made in the Barossa, he began to notice Aboriginal art, dismissing it at first as ‘tourist’ or ‘mall’ art. Encouraged by me, however, he delved into the AGNSW basement and found the real thing in the canvases of Tjumpo Tjampitjinpa and Alma Webou.
Two hundred paintings later (in just 5 years), the Scholls set out to promote their new passion, and found receptive ears at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno (until April 26), at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (June 20- August 15), the Perez Art Museum in Miami (September 17-January 3 2016), the Charles H Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit (January 17-May 15) and finally the Herbert F Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell (June 11-August 14).
What will audiences across the States see? Alphabetically, they’ll start with my old friend Paddy Bedford, the man who first verbalised the notion that in his 8 year career he’d painted all of his Mother’s and Father’s Gija Countries “ plus a few intrusions by white men during the ‘Killing Times’ “ and ended up just painting. Then they’ll meet Butcher Cherel from Fitzroy Crossing, the stately, white-bearded Gooniyandi man whose delicate patterning reflected his River Country to him while appearing almost decorative to us. And then Prince of Wales, the Larrakia man who danced for the Queen in Darwin to earn his name, then transferred the grid-like dotting of his ceremonial body markings to canvas after a stroke that stilled his dance.
We move on to the Anangu Lands where Ngaanyatjarra man Tommy Mitchell was, perhaps surprisingly chosen to bring his ‘Pirriya Purlkanya’ or mighty Willy-Willy stories to quiet American galleries “ works that became the key to achieving his ‘Yurltu (Toyota) Dreaming’, allowing him to revisit sacred sites and relatives across the vast, story-filled spaces of the Western Desert. Back in The Kimberley, the tiny, gem-like works of the pipe-smoking Ngarra are rarely seen in Eastern Australia, but will now illuminate the States. And, just out of The Kimberley into the Great Sandy Desert, Wangkajungka man Billy Thomas has been chosen for his paintings made in the white-heat of spirituality after a season of ceremony in the desert, the details invariably whited-out as he denied non-initiates a full view of his culture.
Two Balgo/Wirrimanu men also made the cut “ a compliment to the seriousness with which art-making is taken in this desert Dreaming site of the Luurnpa Kingfisher. Boxer Milner, the Jaru man from Stuart Creek and Tjumpo Tjapanangka, the Kukatja rain-maker from the salt lake Wilkinkarra on the edge of the Gibson Desert are contrasted as artists working in the same community by John Carty, Boxer’s friend. Artists such as Tjumpo fused dots into a luminous linearity, blending and flattening their ‘dottiness’, Boxer not only preserved the dot, he accentuated it. In the rains and the soils, in the soaking and the drying, Boxer gave the dot more to do. Dot upon dot, he sculpted space, time. If anything, he turned the dot into an increasingly representational aesthetic device.
Finally, Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, the Pintupi Last of the Nomads, who first encountered our white world in 1984 when he walked out of the bush, must have been irresistible to Dennis Scholl. Such a connection with the Native, yet such a sophisticated op-art mark-maker in the classic Papunya Tula style, it’s easy to see why Jens Hoffman throws up the example of James Siena’s 1999 ‘bracket painting’ to show how men of such different cultures can be seen to interpret the world similarly.
Other thought-provoking comments from the catalogue include the apt adoption of de Kooning’s description slipping glimpser to describe the way we see Billy Thomas’s art: the eye sees then does not see a figure in the complexity of organic abstraction; then Carty’s explanation: I capitilize Country (because) it means neither landscape nor nation state but a more complex nuancing of the relationship between those terms…the sedimentation of ancestral events, social history and personal experiences into specific places; and William Fox, the Nevada Museum’s Director of Art & the Environment’s precious realisation that art created in (a remote out-station like Mulan) is essential for the survival of the local culture, Aboriginal society and our own sense of place. We should be paying the closest attention to how this art is making the world.
Most of the writers about the individual artists have been close to them and are generous in sharing their knowledge. Unfortunately neither Billy Thomas nor Prince of Wales have found such an intimate biographer “ placing Thomas’s heart in The Kimberley is a mistake, and declaring PoW the most important senior Aboriginal artist to have painted in the NT appears to deny the existence of Mawalan Marika, Lofty Bardayal, John Mawurndjul, Gulumbu Yunupingu and a host of Arnhemland bark masters. It shouldn’t have got through Aussie ex-pat editor (and curator) Henry Skerritt’s guard. But then he has some pretty outre, if thought-provoking ideas himself. One is the notion that Warlimpirrnga, straight from the desert, might have been resisting being primitivized by choosing to paint abstractly! Or that Aboriginal art can be have yet another Western art wank wished upon it by being hailed as Conceptualism. But then, perhaps Skerritt really intended to take these Western-eye views of Aboriginal art right over the ‘No Boundaries’ of sense!
In 1988, Peter Sutton’s ‘Dreamings‘ show in New York inspired a number of major, exclusively Aboriginal art collection in the US. It would be good to think that the Scholl show might encourage collectors instead to place Aboriginal art beside their contemporary non-Indigenous artworks and take it just as seriously.
Artist: Tjumpo Tjampitjinpa, Alma Webou, Paddy Bedford, Butcher Cherel, Prince of Wales, Tommy Mitchell, Ngarra, Billy Thomas, Boxer Milner, Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, Mawalan Marika, Lofty Bardayal, John Mawurndjul, Gulumbu Yunupingu,